The Same River Twice: Tender Mercies and Crazy Heart

Crazy Heart poster

Recently I finally caught Jeff Bridges’ Oscar-winning performance in Crazy Heart. And while he was certainly very good, I couldn’t shake the sense that I’d seen this movie before, when it starred Robert Duvall and was called Tender Mercies. Naturally, I’m not the first viewer to notice that.

The similarities are striking. Even the protagonists’ names are similarly short, sharp, and masculine: Bridges plays Bad Blake, Duvall plays Mac Sledge. Both are middle-aged country singers struggling with alcohol and careers on the skids. Both actors do their own singing. Both characters become involved with single mothers of young sons. Both singers are estranged from their adult children. Both face a crisis involving a child. And both men won Oscars for their roles.

But though both tell essentially the same story, the emphasis is completely different.

Crazy Heart sceneIn Crazy Heart, we follow Bad Blake on his long slide down, knowing that eventually his drinking will lead to tragedy of some sort. We wait for him to bottom out, dreading it and yet anticipating it, because without it the story has no point. When it finally happens, we’re almost relieved. Then in the last few minutes there’s the sobriety montage, the amends-making, and the return to performing. Ironically, Bad turns to a friend, played by Tender Mercies star Duvall, to help him get sober.

Tender Mercies sceneIn Tender Mercies, on the other hand, Mac Sledge bottoms out before the credits finish. Because this film was written by a master of understatement, the great Horton Foote, it’s not nearly as dramatic (or rather, melodramatic) as Bad Blake passed out on his bathroom floor in his tidy whities. But the bulk of the film is about Mac Sledge, as one reviewer put it, “coming back, but only as far as he wants to.”

So in simple terms, Crazy Heart is about Bad Blake’s fall. Tender Mercies is about Mac Sledge’s rise.

Alice Walker called her book about turning The Color Purple into a movie The Same River Twice. To extend that metaphor to this example, imagine the almost identical story of both films as a single river; where the journey starts on it depends on where you put in your boat. Crazy Heart puts in far upstream from Tender Mercies, but stops just past the point the earlier film begins. And Tender Mercies continues on far past the end of the other film.

I confess a preference for Mac Sledge’s journey, and not just because Horton Foote is a better screenwriter than Scott Cooper. Bad Blake travels the same well-worn path found in films like Walk the Line, except that the upbeat conclusion of Bad’s story rings false, somehow (and is entirely different from the downbeat ending of the source novel). In real life, people as far gone as Bad Blake—people like Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Ian Curtis, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse—don’t turn around, or if they do, they’re shadows of their former selves. You dance with the devil, the devil doesn’t change, you change.

Mac Sledge, on the other hand, doesn’t want his old life back. He’s done with the music business, if not with music. He wants, not just a better life, but a different life. This is explicit in probably the most famous exchange from the film, when a woman at the grocery store asks. “Hey, mister, were you really Mac Sledge?” He replies, with dry irony, “Yes, ma’m, I guess I was.”

It’s an entirely personal preference, of course. Both films are solid, and both feature great performances. So where you put in your boat is, I guess, dependent upon what part of the river you want to travel.

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