Cast: Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Collin Farrell
by Jason Callen
Prior to seeing Scott Cooper’s new film Black Mass, I decided to take a look at his first feature Crazy Heart which I had avoided due to my disinterest in country music and my reaction to his second feature Out of the Furnace, which I found to be well acted but empty and pretty desperate to evoke The Deer Hunter with its small, working town milieu. I expected that Crazy Heart would be equally derivative, clichéd, but still well-acted.
I wasn’t wrong; the film is all those things. However through that good acting and a low key approach to story, the film manages to sidestep the clichés of these “rock bottom” movies. Jeff Bridges is so damn comfortable in the role of “Bad” Blake that he has no problem introducing the character as he gets out of a car with unzipped pants and dumps out his traveling piss (an image that will be repeated a couple of times). That’s confidence in your character right there ladies and gentlemen. That confidence and ease seems to transfer to the rest of the cast as all give low key but effective performances. This too helps the film elevate itself from the clichés it embraces. When we meet Bad’s former protégé, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), we expect a big clash; the former student has surpassed the teacher and the teacher is bitter and thinks he stole songs, or left him behind, ect, ect. Instead we get a very reasonable encounter where Tommy shows his appreciation for Bad and even tries to get him to write a song for him as a way of helping Bad.
The other relationship of significance is between Bad and the Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the niece of one of the bar owners where Bad has had gigs. She’s a fledgling reporter for the local paper and wants to write about Bad. He agrees and the two start a relationship that begins as reporter/subject, moves to friendship and eventually to a romantic relationship. “Of course,” I can hear you saying and you’re right, there is never a doubt as to where this relationship is heading but the actors make it seem natural, inevitable, and it works. However, Jean has a young son from a previous marriage and it’s the relationship between him and Bad that tips the scale over to cliché and sinks the last 1/3 of the film. While it may not be as tried and true as Chekov’s “gun rule,” I’m willing to bet that if you have an unwed, single mother in your film and she gets involved with an alcoholic, regardless of how wonderful that alcoholic might seem, the child will be either lost, put in danger, hurt, or killed by said alcoholic.
Lucky for us all, Crazy Heart does not overstep this particular scenario, but the change in relationship between these two characters afterwards seems to sink the movie and is totally out of step with the tone and expectation set by the first 2/3 of the film. It’s as if Cooper (who wrote the screenplay based on the book by Thomas Cobb) looked at the script and said, “You know, these people are just too reasonable, we need to blow up this third act and make one of them a caricature.” Maybe he thought there wasn’t enough drama or that people would get bored without some “event” in the last 1/3.
I’m not willing to give up on Cooper yet though. While this didn’t ultimately win me over, between it and the anti-Scorsese gangster flick Black Mass, Cooper has shown that he is capable of slightly subverting our genre expectations in order to draw the focus away from one aspect of the genre and on to a different one; in Crazy Heart he moves focus from the seediness and despair of “rock bottom” films to the quiet, sad realities of life time performers. In Black Mass he strips the gangster film of its sensationalism and romanticism and highlights the absolute horror. One was successful, the other not (maybe I should giveOut of the Furnace another look in this light), but it’s enough to make me curious as to what Cooper will do next and if that genre subversion is truly a part of his signature or just happenstance. Time will tell.