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Country For An Old Man

Just as films involving boxers tend to rise above the mediocre level of most sports movies, so too, when it comes to stories based around musicians, it's the ones involving country artists which have a higher success rate.

It's probably got something to do with the fact that pretty much every song in the genre tells a story, so it follows that the people who sing those songs for a living would have more to offer by way of dramatic interest than, say, a boyband put together by a lizard-eyed pop mogul.

Over the years we've had Robert Duvall win an Oscar for Tender Mercies, Sissy Spacek win for Coal Miner's Daughter, Robert Altman make arguably his best film with Nashville, Clint Eastwood have a go as an ailing singer in Honkytonk Man and the early life of Johnny Cash brought to life in Walk the Line. Now it's the turn of Jeff Bridges to possibly scoop an Oscar for his outstanding performance in Crazy Heart.

Here, Bridges brings every ounce of his vast screen presence to bear in the role of 'Bad' Blake, an ageing country singer whose grizzled demeanour and world-weary songs recall the 'outlaw' country of the likes of Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard with a touch of Kris Kristofferson and Guy Clark thrown into the mix for good measure. Once reasonably successful, 'Bad' is now on a tedious treadmill of one-night stands across the American south-west, using young pick-up bands to play bars and bowling alleys while driving vast distances alone between shows and drinking himself to near-death in cheap motels.

To make matters worse, he clearly winces when fans mention his protégé, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), a youngster he gave his first break to and who's now playing 10,000-seater arenas and positively raking it in. Bridges, who's absolutely perfect in this role, is utterly convincing as a man at the wrong end of his life, and while he still carries himself with a slightly swaying swagger -- at one point telling a young backing musician, "Son, I've played sick, drunk, divorced and on the run and I ain't never missed a show" -- he knows that he's a man running out of time and road.

There are those who care for him, not least his best friend and bartender Wayne (Robert Duvall, who was instrumental in getting the film made) and the possibility of redemption does enter his life in the form of Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a journalist who comes to interview him, and, after asking where his songs come from, receives the memorable reply: "Life, unfortunately."

In many ways Crazy Heart is a slight enough story made memorable by Bridges' wonderful, sensitive performance and anchored by fine supporting turns from Gyllenhaal, Duvall and Farrell. First-time director Scott Cooper, an actor himself, does give clear leeway to his performers when maybe he could have driven the film a bit harder but that's a relatively minor quibble. Mention too must go to the excellent soundtrack, with the great T-Bone Burnett as musical director and many of the songs performed by Bridges himself. HHHII

grg.byrne@gmail.com


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