Rated R/112 min.
Four Out of Five Stars
The first time we see “Bad” Blake, he’s stumbling out of his beat up ’78 automobile, pouring out a plastic container he peed into during the long drive and grumbling that he has to perform a concert in a rundown bowling alley. Jeff Bridges plays Blake, a self destructive alcoholic whose once shining country music career is now a series of drunken episodes, awkward encounters with middle aged groupies and gigs in small towns with appreciative fans who seem to excuse or ignore the fact that the man on stage is clearly wasted.
From the haunting songs composed by T-Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton and ably crooned by Bridges to the scene where Blake tip toes out of a one-night-stand’s hotel room and is careful to grab the booze on the way out the door, the details always feel right. This is a lived-in movie, a refreshing break from fabricated Hollywood fluff.
I love country music and am proud that my first concert was seeing Willie Nelson at the Oskie Rice Arena 20 years ago. But the great thing about this movie is that, even if you hate C&W tunes, you’ll still be spellbound. This isn’t a series of cornball “maw dawg and maw truck” songs interrupted by cowboy movie clichés and a gag-worthy love story. This is about how a washed up has-been gets one last shot at greatness and strives for both artistic and personal redemption. It’s kind of like The Wrestler with honky-tonk bars and eight-gallon hats instead of bloodstained rings and Mickey Rourke.
Bridges vanishes for two hours into the body of Blake; this is another milestone Bridges performance in a career full of them. I frequently forgot that I was watching one of my favorite actors, who always underplays and goes for realism over showy, “tour de force” acting. Words like “towering” and “powerhouse” were made to describe this portrayal, but I’ll use pure, as Bridges never goes astray, even when the screenplay sometimes heads in obvious, familiar directions. There are a couple of scenes that feel over-written (particularly a contrived bit involving a lost child in a crowded mall) but the characters never come across as artificial and the actors who play them never hit a false note.
Maggie Gyllenhaal shines in a vulnerable turn as a smitten reporter and, while it takes a minute to accept him as a country singer, Colin Farrell is first rate in a rare character turn, and is as good a singer as Bridges. Robert Duvall, one of the film’s producers, has a small role as one of Blake’s few friends, a bartender who understands the man Blake was and is, and tries to steer him in the direction he so badly wants to go.
This may end up being Bridges’s greatest performance, which is saying an awful lot. In the past, his exceptional work has often carried a mediocre movie. But here, his craft as an actor compliments a hugely rewarding film that fades in and out like a crackling country song on an old radio.