Around this time last year Mickey Rourke was generating widespread acclaim for his screen-chewing performance as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, the eponymous down-on-his luck protagonist in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler.
Jeff Bridges is currently generating a similar level of buzz for his Oscar-nominated performance as Bad Blake in Crazy Heart, director Scott Cooper’s character study of a past-his-prime country music troubadour who reluctantly confronts important life decisions long after they’re due.
Both characters are walking synonyms for “washed up” – they are run down, enfeebled, debilitated, over the hill. Both attempt to reconnect with an estranged child. Both have serious health issues. Both romance a single mother many years their junior. Both go by a lively moniker out of sync with their current, pitiable selves.
In a rare moment of clarity The Ram says “I’m a broken down piece of meat and I’m all alone.” That line could be seamlessly integrated into virtually every scene in Crazy Heart, perfectly suited to Bad Blake’s down-n-out demeanour.
Blake’s first gig in the film takes place – much to his disdain – at a bowling alley. Wandering from town to town, honky tonk to honky tonk, the gruff fading celeb is effortlessly captivating on stage but drowns his life away in a pool of whiskey and debauchery. His blood type is bourbon; his love life is a string of one night stands. Things change, at least a little, when he falls for a young upstart music journo Jean (Maggie Gyllenhall) and a romance slowly develops between them, which inspires Blake to reassess where his life is heading.
The story doesn’t take the easy way out: while it is essentially a tale of redemption Bad Blake’s journey is neither uplifting nor tragic; it is not skewed towards a resolution that is overtly happy or overtly sad, hovering in a middle ground where anything is possible but life is nevertheless harsh and unforgiving.
All the elements are in sync, buoyed by an outstanding central character – a role infused with colour, complexity and the occasional splodge of whiskey-flavoured vomit.
Bridges’s performance nails it and then some. Watching him texture Bad Blake in a combination of contradictory colours – commanding, afflicted, headstrong, weak-willed – is a totally immersive experience and a treat from start to finish. Like Rourke’s high voltage presence in The Wrestler, Bridges builds his character in Crazy Heart with unshakable authenticity, the kind that will inevitably lead viewers to suspect it’s not all acting.
Gyllenhall isn’t up to the same standard, in the way most supporting acts don’t match the headliner, but the chemistry between her and Bridges rings true.
Bad Blake is so vividly rendered that remembering Crazy Heart feels almost as if you were there, at one of his crummy gigs, sitting up front near the amp on a patch of beer-soiled carpet within spitting distance of the man himself. It’s a touching, bittersweet performance, and one of the most interesting and lifelike characters we’re likely to see from American cinema this year.
Crazy Heart’s Australian theatrical release date: February 18, 2010