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Vol. 2 (2009)
When I start hearing about a film that's being pushed as a candidate for Oscar honors -- when my instincts tell me otherwise -- I'm delighted to be proven wrong. It doesn't happen all that often and, when it does, I'm forced to admit that sometimes Oscar buzz is a beacon of something special.
Bridges knocked me out with the calibre of his singing, his full body feel for the rhythms of the country ballad, and the impression he makes on a stage with a mic that he's been doing it for all the years of his adult life. If we didn't know otherwise, I'd have said, "where's this dude been? Why haven't I seen him on the Grammys or featured at the Grand Ol' Opry in Nashville?" Life and career have been hard on the balladeer he portrays, Bad Blake. Someone asks his real name and he says they'll find out when they read his tombstone. He's the portrait of a man once on top where good country music is part of the surrounding mosaic of everyday life. Now, the best you can say about him is that he's a legend. A drunk. Sweaty. Sometimes funny in a wry, offhanded way. Something less than dependable... even if it's just staying on his feet. But, a legend. And, though his sense of responsibility leaves something to be desired, a decent person at heart.
He's sore in need of some reclamation.
After a failing gig at a bowling alley cum nightclub in some backwater town, and a slightly better one where his drunken stupor gives the backup band more stage time than they know what to do with, and the patrons less than they bargained for, he blows into Santa Fe where he's welcomed warmly and meets Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal, "The Dark Knight," "Sherrybaby") who is going to be the best shot he's had at a turnaround when he agrees to be interviewed by her for the local paper.
She's obviously a knowledgeable fan of country, but the interview is over when her questions get a mite personal for Bad's instinct of keeping his personal life private. But the lady, with her gentle and outgoing manner makes an impression he's not going to forget by just moving on. She's decidedly on a whole other level than the usual woman who make a local hotel unnecessary for the touring balladeer. The level of his respect toward for this angelic mother of one young son is instantaneous and complete--something to see, something that raises the heartbeat.
She gets into the gut of the man one night when he's composing a song, tearing up and explaining it as a reaction to a person from whom poetry and music pours forth with such natural ease. This cry of appreciation for creative genius got to me, as well, with the benfit of how Maggie Gyllenhaal delivers it.
Bad is appreciated far and wide as a cutting edge songwriter, too, and hot country sensation Tommy Sweet, a former protege' about whom Bad is loathe to speak because of a rise to fame he considers too easy, wants to pay homage to his mentor by using him as his opening act and buying his original songs. Bad cusses up a storm at his agent/manager (James Keane) for negotiating a contract that will bring him before a bigger audience than he's played for for years, but he gives it a go. A comeback might be in view, but the alcohol's still a problem and, for a tragedy to be averted, Bad has to pass through a patch of very bad luck with two of his dearest friends and find support along the way.
Bridges is one of those actors whose command of the screen defies innattention, and he makes use of his magnetism with humor and gait and no sign of effort. Gyllenhaal, typically lovely and classy, is a match captivating in the way she expresses adoration and understanding.
Barry Markowitz's ("Sling Blade") cinematography of the romantic interludes between Bridges and Gyllenhaal are outstanding, with soft low-key lighting all but caressing her in the gauzy bounce light of a hotel room. This fine quality dissipates as the drama goes on, creating a suspicion that the shooting schedule grew rushed in the latter half--not unusual in the low-budget world of filmmaking.
Stealing much of the credit for the quality of this production are the songwriters whose material the actors get so much artistic mileage from, Stephen Bruton and T. Bone Burnett ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?")--the latter of whom co-produced along with Robert Duvall who plays Bad's hometown buddy. They're part of the creative collusion that makes you think Bad Blake alias Jeff Bridges is the most guarded secret in country music.
There's nothing about the essential content of this film that's artificial.
~~ Jules Brenner