Jeff Bridges does not portray Bad Blake, a broken-down, once-successful country singer; he inhabits the role, showing us not just what is happening to the man on screen but everything, every success and every failure, every love and every loss that the man has had in his 57 years.
Blake once played arenas and was a mentor to Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), who is now a huge star. He once had money, and his own band. Now he is lucky to get a one-night gig at a bowling alley, with a pick-up band for back-up.
Bridges makes us feel that Blake is someone we have known and listened to all our lives, as though just last week, driving in the car, one of his old songs came on and we said, “You know, I really used to like that guy. Whatever happened to him?”
Like the songs Blake sings (from Stephen Bruton and T-Bone Burnett), the story feels completely authentic and fully lived. We know at the very beginning, as soon as Blake pulls up to the bowling alley parking lot that he is destined to disappoint everyone, and that he knows it, too. And yet, he still has the power to surprise us, to beguile us, to make us think, against our better judgment, that things might be different next time.
Did this happen because he drinks too much or does he drink too much because it happened? Probably both. Substance abusers, even those who have some self-awareness, maintain their denial by compartmentalizing so they can reassure themselves that there is some part of their life they are not messing up. We see what’s left of that with Blake when he is on stage. He may spend the rest of his life hiding from others and even himself how much of his energy goes into obtaining and drinking booze and recovering from drinking booze. But he holds onto what was precious to him. He may skip rehearsal and duck off stage to throw up in the middle of a big number, but he will do everything in his still-considerable power to deliver to the audience. He can still muster some grace on and off stage.
Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a single mother and aspiring journalist, interviews Blake for an article. There is a strong attraction between them, her for what he has been and him for what he sees of himself in her eyes. An unexpected setback gives them a break to explore what they might be to each other, and Blake’s genuine connection to her son makes Jean even more vulnerable. But anyone who’s ever listened to a country song knows why Blake’s first name is Bad.
And anyone who sees this movie will know why Bridges’ first name should be Good. One of our finest actors has been given one of his finest roles, and that makes this a very good film to see.