Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Crazy Heart -- hitting rock bottom

Director: Scott Cooper, 2009. (R)

Country songs capture the essence of life, the ups and the downs, often focusing on the struggles and suffering. Crazy Heart captures the essence of a country singer, Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges), focusing on his struggles. A loose episodic film, it highlights the impacts the right relationship can have even on a crusty old curmudgeon.

Bad is 57, broke and just about broken-down. Years of living on the road have taken their toll. He's seen too many bars, drunk too many drinks, and even married too many women. Single again, he is a legend whose star has waned. From playing packed out stadiums, he now plays bowling alleys and two-bit bars to crowds you could count on two hands.

Driving his trusty Chevy Surburban between gigs, he plays with unknown bands and "enjoys" one-night stands with aged groupies. He is living off the fame of his one great song, the one he sings every night and can't forget. This one has him by the hairs and won't let him go. On the other hand, he can't write any new songs, so he lives in the past.

How often are we like this, living off our one great success? We score a huge deal, write a great song, author a memorable book, and that is it. When we are defined by our past success we limit our future; it becomes a dead-end street. We begin to be like Bad, driving miles and miles to arrive at nowhere we haven't been before, going through the motions of living. Life is more than this. In sports they say you are only as good as your next game. You may have just won the superbowl or the BCS, but if you cannot go out and perform anew the next time you are destined for the slagheap of dusty memories. As followers of Jesus, we live in the present with an eye to the future. Our past cannot define us. We live imperfectly until Jesus has molded us into his image (Rom. 8:29). And that work of transformation will not be complete until we reach glory (Rom. 8:30). So, we must live for the future, abiding in Jesus in the present.

The first part of the film cements Bad's character as a bad boy, boozing and paying scant attention even to his trade. But when he arrives in Santa Fe and agrees to give a rare interview to a journalist, his life is about to change. Though almost two-decades younger than he, Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal) appears captivated by his gruff manner. Despite an odd chemistry, they fall into bed and into somewhat of a love relationship. Yet, she has been burned by marriage and is a single parent with a four year-old, Buddy (Jack Nation).

Bridges gives an outstanding performance as Bad, and it is the acting that makes this film so good. A veteran actor, he has appeared in dramas as the hero (Arlington Road) and the villain (Iron Man), cult classics like Tron and The Big Lebowski (who can forget his role as "The Dude"), and even the current remake of True Grit. After over 50 feature films, he finally won a Best Actor Oscar for his role here, and it is deserved. He inhabits the character, even doing his own singing. Alongside him, Gyllenhaal was herself nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar but lost out to Mo'nique (Precious). Veteran Robert Duvall, who also produced this film, appears as an aging bar owner. Interestingly enough, Duvall himself won an Oscar for playing a broken-down country singer in 1984's Tender Mercies. And then there's Colin Farrell, the Irishman who carries an American accent. He plays the new star, once mentored by Bad, who has now surpassed him and left him in the dust. Like Bridges, Farrell does his own singing, and it is not half bad.

During one of his inter-gig drives, Bad falls asleep and wrecks his car and mangles his ankle. Being forced to lay up in Jean's house, he recognizes that he loves her. With this renewed passion in his heart, he begins to write again. Love can do that. It fuels a positive outlook on life and brings with it joy. Bad's cynicism is pared back, and his creative juices begin to flow once more.

Despite the good things that start to happen, Bad remains at heart self-destructive. He can convince others that he is changing, but the real Bad is unchanged. He has not followed his doctor's advice and has only empty platitudes for Jean and Buddy. He must hit rock bottom before he can find any redemption or salvation. And it takes one action of his to make this happen and to change his relationships with everyone he cares about.

Another more contemporary country singer, Wynona, sang: "When you hit rock bottom you got two ways to go: straight up and sideways." Rock bottom is the place we all must reach to experience true salvation. Before this, we are like Bad, kidding ourselves. We think we are better than we are. We believe can conquer our demons, whatever they are. But if we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, the typically Western idea, we don't need a Savior. We can make it on our own. That is to move sideways.

Straight up from rock bottom requires that we face the facts. We cannot do it ourselves. Jesus said that he "came to seek and to save the lost" (Lk. 19:10). If we can find our own way out, we are not lost. Jesus also said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick" (Matt. 9:12). On the contrary, "all our righteous acts are like filthy rags" (Isa. 64:6). When we acknowledge we are sin-sick, corrupted so much that we cannot add anything to our own salvation, then and only then are we ready for grace. Into this experience comes Jesus, a grace-giving carpenter who does not simply mend our broken character. Instead, he picks us up and gives us a new character, even a new identity in him (2 Cor. 5:17). Born sin-depraved in the first Adam (Rom. 5:12), we are raised as forgiven saints in the second Adam (Rom. 5:18-19).

Unlike many Hollywood movies, this film decries the typical happy ending, leaving us instead with e satisfaction of seeing a man who has reached rock bottom and moved straight up. More true to life, our salvation experience will move us straight up without necessarily solving all our problems. Sometimes the harder the life, the sweeter the ensuing salvation song.

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

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