All hail the small movie.

When you hear that Crazy Heart is about a down on his luck country singer who is nursing an alcohol habit and getting involved with a younger woman, you might think the movie is filled with high drama – big, broad moments and crushing lows. But Scott Cooper, who directed and adapted Crazy Heart from the novel by Thomas Cobb, knows that life is a series of small moments, and that it doesn’t take a tragedy or a truly harrowing experience to hit bottom. It’s just the slow accumulation of stones; at first you can walk fine with these stones on your shoulders, but over the years the burden becomes too much.

The film focuses sharply on Bad Blake, old-time country singer who was the mentor to Tommy Sweet, a popular modern country star. Blake tours bowling alleys, puking in the back bins between sets, while Tommy is swarmed by autograph seekers at amphitheaters across the country. There’s bitterness in Blake, and defeat. He has no money, he drives his own shitty truck from gig to gig, and he’s happily drinking himself to death. Then into his life comes a small-town reporter, and suddenly he sees that things can be good, if doesn’t fuck up too much.

Again, it’s small. There’s a car crash and a child in peril, but nothing that feels larger than life or Hollywood. Even though Bad Blake’s path takes him to be an opener for Tommy Sweet (a crushing humiliation for the man who once taught Sweet how to play guitar), every element of his life feels real and ground level and understandable. And the film is smart not to opt for easy outs – Sweet isn’t a dick. And Jean, the reporter, isn’t a broken person or a pushover or a saint or a superwoman. Everybody feels real. Everything feels real.

And that’s a triumph in a lot of ways. It can be hard to craft a movie that feels like it’s reflecting real life without getting tedious, but Cooper has put often genial, usually funny words in the character’s mouths. And he’s hired some terrific actors to say them. Jeff Bridges is all-but guaranteed an Oscar for Bad Blake, and it’s the kind of role that makes critics trot out hackneyed phrases like ‘lived in,’ but it’s true. Sticking with that reality feeling, Blake feels real. He feels like a character who was alive before the cameras rolled and one who continues when the last shot has been captured. Bad Blake is a person, and Bridges brings every year of his life, every mile of his endless tour, into every scene. It’s not one of those flashy, showy performances that Oscar likes to reward because the Academy is filled with easily impressed elderly people, but it’s the kind of honest, true performance that defines an actor as a great. You can see Bridges in there, sure, but he’s created and is inhabiting a complete character.

Unfortunately I am congenitally bugged by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays Jean, the reporter who gets mixed up with Bad Blake. While she gives a fine, sensitive performance as a single mom caught up in a relationship that seems doomed from the moment it starts, there’s just an energy about her that irritates me. I couldn’t help but wonder how much more I would have liked this excellent little film if there had been another actress. 

Robert Duvall glides into the film in the last act as Bad Blake’s good friend and bartender, and he brings a real southern charm to the part. There’s this little jig Duvall does when picking up Blake at a facility that feels so spontaneous and real and tells you a thousand things about this man’s life and the way he lived it. Thats’ what truly great acting is about, though – small signifiers that speak more loudly than any dialog while not being flashy or obvious. They have to feel true and Duvall knows true.

Ryan Bingham (no, not the one from Up In the Air) wrote the songs in the film [update: I was wrong. While Bingham wrote the main song (the one that will be Oscar nominated), T Bone Burnett wrote the rest]; I was hoping to really love these, as I have grown into an appreciation of country music, and while they’re good there are no killer tracks. It’s interesting that the fake song from Jennifer’s Body stuck with me more than anything from Crazy Heart, a movie about a musician. Or maybe the songs, like the characters, are subtle and I need to spend more time with them. It would have been nice to walk away from the film with at least one song burned into my head.

Barry Markowitz’s cinematography is evocative and often a character in the film. He’s shooting the American Southwest, which is at once overshot but also incapable of being truly captured on film. He does a nice job of finding the dusty textures, though, and sets them off nicely against the cramped, dark interior of Blake’s rarely visited home. Actually the film makes excellent use of locations, mirroring or contrasting aspects of Blake’s internal struggle.

Crazy Heart is a little film, and I love it for that. All too often the internet is a place where we’re only interested in the truly stunning or the utterly awful; there’s very little room in the dialog for the films that fall in between, the very good films, the films that grow on you, the films that speak softly. Crazy Heart is one of those films, a movie that doesn’t try to blow your hair back but succeeds in sending you home with the feeling that you got to know somebody, that you spent time with somebody during a pivotal moment in their lives. That’s world building to me.

8 out of 10