My initial reaction to a movie about an alcoholic, broken-down country-western singer/songwriter (Jeff Bridges) who falls for a much younger woman (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is that I saw it over 25 years ago when Robert Duvall (who co-produces and co-stars in this film) played the part and it was called TENDER MERCIES (1983). But unlike Duvall’s (THE GODFATHER) redeemed Max Sledge character, Bridges’ (THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT) Bad Blake is an unrepentant boozer whose life has become a continuous bottoming-out process characterized by bowling alley concerts and nights spent in cheap, rundown hotels. When an actor plays a once-famous fictitious entertainer, he/she has to demonstrate to me a certain quality showing why their talent was embraced by the public to begin with. Bridges accomplishes this by effectively doing his own vocals of well-written songs that I think ought to be playing on country radio stations (See critic’s note.). Beyond that are some very capable supporting turns from Gyllenhaal (THE DARK KNIGHT) and Colin Farrell (who also does his own vocals) as a Kenny Chesney-type singer whose career Blake mentored. Barry Markovitz’s cinematography of desolate western landscapes nicely mirrors Blake’s lifestyle that's completely isolated him from lasting, meaningful relationships. What makes Bridges’ versatile performance a likely Oscar winner is that he pulls it off without any affectation that looks either contrived or pre-planned. That’s my multi-syllabic way of saying that I never once caught him acting. Don’t overlook the direction and screenwriting of newcomer Scott Cooper who takes characters and storylines that we think we’ve seen before yet manages to give them a distinct brand all his own. This is a movie that’s actually been underrated and I highly recommend it. CRITIC’S GRADE: B+
CRITIC’S NOTE: Much of the credit for this movie’s tone should go to songwriter Stephen Bruton and record producer/songwriter T Bone Burnett, whose original music shows a genuine feel for the country-western genre. One of the pieces, “The Weary Kind” is up for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. Sadly, Bruton won’t be in attendance, having succumbed to cancer while at Burnett’s home last May.