Willie Nelson is one of the few members of country music's shaggily decadent outlaw coterie to avoid mention as an inspiration for Bad Blake, the anti-hero of “Crazy Heart,” director Scott Cooper's examination of the ugly back end of Nashville's generational changing of the guard. But Nelson's “Whiskey River” could nonetheless be a metaphor for the divide between the film's old and new guards.
“Crazy Heart” takes on many themes — the art-from-misery phenomenon and the oversexed, unmarriageable Baby Boomer American male among them — but chief is an avid attention to various strategies for the procurement and consumption of whiskey.
One of the tidiest of Cooper's insinuations that Colin Farrell, as Tommy Sweet, former protege of Jeff Bridges' leonine Bad Blake, is “new” country — meaning Nashville by way of L.A., or Taylor Swift appearing in trailers for the romantic comedy “Valentine's Day” in between besting Lady Gaga and embarrassing Stevie Nicks during Sunday night's Grammy Awards telecast — is that he sips his whiskey from a plastic bottle that once held Smart Water. Bad Blake has to haggle for his booze with vacant-eyed bowling-alley barmaids who are loath to run him a tab. When the haggling goes south, he extinguishes his cigarette in the backwash he's by now been forced to buy, a gesture that captures, in one ornery hiss, how far Blake has slipped, and just what greased the slope.
“Crazy Heart” has been called “The Wrestler” with a country-and-western overlay — steel guitar instead of steel folding chairs, swung like weapons. The films do share an occupation with punishments of the flesh: Images of a girthy Bridges hugging a ceramic-tiled bathroom floor might make you suspect the model for Bad Blake isn't Kris Kristofferson or Waylon Jennings, two popular guesses, but a drunken, hamburger-chomping David Hasselhoff, in that devastating home video filmed by his own daughter.
But Bad Blake doesn't marinate in the same juice of desperation as Mickey Rourke's Randy “The Ram.” “I've played sick, drunk, divorced and on the run,” Blake assures an audience caught off guard by a flubbed lyric, to say nothing of the sweat that has seeped through his shirt and is now colonizing his vest. He's in on the joke that he always was.
In contrast to the stadium-filling, seldom-seen Sweet (like Bridges, Farrell is also mercifully seldom-heard; neither is completely convincing as either a current or a former crowd-pleasing vocalist, even if they have T. Bone Burnett writing for them), Blake is on a past-his-prime tour of the Southwest, which Cooper films in a loving if sun-bleached panoptic view.
Blake's humbling circuit takes him to Santa Fe, where a local keyboardist (Malvern's sweetly shambling Rick Dial, graduated from the Billy Bob Thornton repertory) introduces him to his niece, a music journalist named Jean Craddock, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Gyllenhaal, while completely believable, locates Jean's center more in Oxford, Miss., as a laconic grad student tired of toying with the intelligentsia who pass through Ole Miss, rather than in bohemian New Mexico. But Bad Blake takes one look into her saucer eyes and sees what she's about, and it isn't just a story for a third-tier newspaper Arts page. “I want to talk about how bad you make this room look,” he purrs, when her line of journalistic probing hews too closely to the straight and narrow.
But one of Jean's questions does manage to pierce Blake's leathery skin. “Are you a daddy?” she asks, in a little too familiar a locution for a post-concert interview. He deflects, then stews, and “Crazy Heart” finally comes into focus, not as a May-December romance or a redemption tale but a consideration of immortality and how to achieve it if you haven't left behind a devoted child bearing your imprint.
Blake doesn't answer Jean's question, but his evasion is the answer; at any rate, he has more luck with his own father figure, played bracingly by Robert Duvall, than he does when he tries to step into the role Jean asked him to acknowledge. Duvall's character turns a fishing trip into something of an intervention, and this wouldn't be a movie about the living that churns out country songs if his gospel didn't come from Billy Joe Shaver instead of the twelve steps. Duvall stares into the sunset and earnestly speaks a few lines of Shaver's “Live Forever”: “Nobody here will ever find me/But I will always be around/Just like the songs I leave behind me/I'm gonna live forever now.”
Blake isn't quite ready to compose the song he'll leave behind him, but when he does, it doesn't stop until it hits bone. “You are the man that ruined her world” is more honest a line than Tommy Sweet, with his Keith Urban composure, is capable of delivering — unless he's singing a Bad Blake song. Even if Bad Blake's masterpiece too neatly rights all the imbalances in his orbit, watching it come together is a satisfying peek at creative refinery, and a heartening reminder that if the broken can make use of pain, they will always be around.