Sunday 1 April 2012

The country is weak in this one

At the 2010 Academy Awards, Jeff Bridges won an overdue Best Actor Oscar for his performance as an over-the-hill country singer in Crazy Heart. That same November Country Strong, a picture about a country singer in crisis, premiered in Nashville to reactions ranging from indifference to disgust.

Alas, duelling a superior film is the absolute least of Country Strong's sins. No, there was no sudden demand for country-themed media, but the Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle might still have been all right had a clunky, clichéd, pretentious script - with a relentlessly misogynistic subtext, no less - and sub-standard music not left a talented cast in the lurch, in ways the describing of which will require minor spoilers.

The heart of the problem is writer-director Shana Feste's extraordinary confusion as to what she wants Country Strong to be. It's a character study - but Paltrow's Kelly Canter is regularly upstaged by her sidekicks' antics. It's a melodrama - but it wears its higher ambitions with pride. It's a study of modern country, whose various strands are represented by the characters - but Feste's attitude towards country seems ambivalent at best and snobbishly dismissive at worst.

Country superstar Kelly Canter (Paltrow) is in rehab after a drugs-and-booze fuelled performance in Dallas that ended in a fall off the stage and a subsequent miscarriage. When her husband and manager James (Tim McGraw) organises a comeback tour, Kelly insists on bringing along her lover, aspiring outlaw singer Beau Hutton (Garreth Hedlund), to open for her. James, meanwhile, enlists former beauty queen turned country pop artist Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester) to appeal to a younger demographic.

Taking an addict out of rehab prematurely for televised shows turns out to be as terrible an idea as you'd expect. While Kelly is running high on cocaine and out of control, she must decide between her sanity and marriage on the one hand, and her increasingly desperate attempts to re-establish herself as an artist on the other. James is struggling to reconcile his job as manager with that of husband, while Beau and Chiles's mutual dislike - his attachment to working man's country and roots music, her Nashville glamour - turns into romance.

This all plays out as the tired melodrama it sounds like, with a script decidedly smacking of a made-for-TV film. Since the four central characters are not so much human beings as country-music archetypes, it could hardly be otherwise. Feste's insistence on telling instead of showing makes matters worse. Kelly is given a very good early establishing moment when she improvises lyrics to a song Beau is writing; but when Country Strong turns into the Passion of St. Kelly the fact that her status as a country superstar is constantly talked about but rarely demonstrated becomes seriously damaging.

Kelly never loses our sympathy, though. That's up to Beau, the weakest of a sorry bunch of characters. Country Strong wants us to adore Beau. He is, we are told and not shown, a sensitive, talented singer-songwriter. He's less a person than the archetype of a fuzzy notion of 'authenticity'. His constant bullying of Chiles does not trouble that image since, Feste assures us, Chiles is on the way that leadeth to destruction. Country Strong's odd mixture of ignorance and snobbery takes a turn towards the laughable in the following exchange:
JAMES: The Austin Statesman's saying that you're the next Carrie Underwood, and he's the next Townes Van Zandt.
CHILES: Who's Townes Van Zandt?
JAMES: He's a singer-songwriter.
CHILES: Was he famous?
JAMES: In some circles. But not as famous as Carrie Underwood.
Feste wants people who prefer Townes Van Zandt to Carrie Underwood to like this bit of dialogue; it's intended to make them feel smug they're part of the authentic, underground 'circles' that get the reference. Whether naked pandering is the best way to satisfy the roots crowd is one question; just what on earth 'the next Townes Van Zandt' would be is another. The real-life Van Zandt - a manic-depressive genius who 'spent much of his adult life living in a shack in the middle of nowhere, drinking himself to death' - defies pigeon-holing, but in Country Strong he's reduced to a placeholder for alt-country: a highly-authentic ghost. In that framework, it hardly matters that Beau doesn't resemble Van Zandt in any significant way.

In the light of his supposed authenticity, it's interesting to note that Beau is the only character about whom we're given no biographical information at all; he's but a cardboard cut-out of the things Country Strong wants us to like (but does not know anything about). Hedlund is powerless against the awfulness Feste has conjured up for him. He acquits himself well, for what that's worth, and so do his cast-mates; if Country Strong was an embarrassment for Paltrow it wasn't on account of her performance.

McGraw, the only non-professional actor, is the best of the bunch, giving a subtle, effective performance as the venal James Canter. It's an excellent portrayal of an abusive husband, if that's what Feste's script intends (sadly, it's hard to be sure). James has all the power in the relationship, controlling and manipulating the fragile Kelly by withholding affection and imbuing her with a sense of guilt to pressure her to drop out of rehab and attempt a premature comeback. His feigned concern - throughout, he argues that the tour is necessary to prevent Kelly from relapsing into obscurity - barely masks the psychological abuse he dishes out.

All things considered, Country Strong might be an acceptably tranquilised time-waster, but its enthusiastic misogyny makes it a thing to be abhorred. The subculture archetypes it dabbles in are blatantly gendered: country-pop is silly, frilly and glitzy, and its avatar is of course a woman. Meanwhile, in the honky-tonk roots culture men can still be men, without suffering the neutering Beau feels threatened by. Chiles, 'the new Carrie Underwood', is patronised by Kelly, publicly humiliated by James and mocked by Beau. Eventually, she learns - in a heartwarming lesson to women everywhere - to avoid the punishment that is her rightful due by giving up on her career and becoming an accessory to her man.

In real life, of course, alt-country teems with female artists, while country-pop has its share of Brad Paisleys and Kenny Chesneys. That Feste insists on a strict gender pattern reveals more about her than about the scene she's caricaturing. As a piece of workmanship, Country Strong is merely flat: the direction is of the point-and-shoot variety, while the music is competent but hardly rousing. Where the film really fails, and fails unpleasantly, is in its smug pretension. Country Strong dismisses country-pop and sides with an imagined authenticity, but it is itself nothing but movie-of-the-week fluff.


  1. I saw Country Strong when it came out, and I wrote about how Beau was the George Jones-like "pure country" singer (maybe I should have said George Strait) while Chiles is in the Taylor Swift pop-country mode. I almost began to see it as a Battle of the Musical Styles and wondered whether the film was about Kelly or about Beau & Chiles.

    However, I did enjoy the soundtrack and was surprised at how good Hedlund sounds. On the whole, I gave it a mild recommendation, worth renting for a cold night (though I would still like to have the soundtrack).

    One more thing: I like Brad Paisley; Kenny Chesney...not so much.

    1. Hey Rick, fellow Brad Paisley lover/Kenny Chesney sceptic here. As for Hedlund, he does a decent job. I think I'm biased because a good number of his songs were written by Hayes Carll, and I should have preferred Carll to do the singing.