Remember when country music meant something to narrative filmmaking, when a tortured, soulful song put to film could document the doubts and dimensions of an entire generation? Remember Robert Duval laying his heart bare in Tender Mercies or Sissy Spacek silencing her doubters in Coal Miner’s Daughter? These small miracles of character combine the conflicts of blue-collar determination and torment with the wonderment of musical creation, and the results are both complex and sublime.
Those days are long gone, replaced by a surface cinematic representation that seems to flaunt the obvious stereotypes of country music rather than the humanity (Pure Country, anyone?). The hardworking folks making the current music scene so popular and meaningful to Americans should be furious at the one-note representation their business has received lately on the big screen, especially in the pandering and mind-bogglingly stupid new film Country Strong. But Nashville will undoubtedly be its biggest cheerleader, since the film is being keenly marketed as a down-home country tale of lost love and redemption.
Subtlety has never been a Hollywood strong suit, but Country Song’s dual character trajectory about young music stars rising and an aged one falling is about as transparent as it gets. Country icon Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow) was once a name brand, but is now an embarrassing black eye on the country music scene after a tragic battle with alcoholism. Pushed to go on tour by her overprotective manager/husband James (Tim MCGraw), Kelly tries to resuscitate her dying career and in the process meets two conflicted up-and-comers, talented young heartthrob Beau Hutton (Garret Hedund), who prefers crummy honkytonks to the limelight of fame, and beauty queen turned singer Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meister), who is ready to become the “next Carrie Underwood” if only she could get over her terrible bout of stage fright. As these characters go on the road and inhabit one familiar sequence after another, their overlapping conversations are supposed to build conflict, but since the emotional variations they share can be counted on one hand, each “honest” moment feels like a retread of the previous.
Country Strong takes this needless setup and suffocates the audience with redundancy for nearly two hours. Selfish motivations trump loyalty, betrayal abounds, and lessons are learned. Shocker. The film is littered with narrative signposts neatly displaying both intent and result in big block letters. The relationship between Beau and Chiles contains no chemistry and goes exactly where even a disinterested viewer would expect. Supposedly a powerhouse singing icon, Kelly spends most of the film hunched over a bottle with James scowling over her shoulder, finally ascending for a brief moment at the end for the titular song of empowerment. Paltrow never convincingly conveys the character’s supposed strength or debilitating weakness, and by the end she’s proven herself a poser rather than a genuine performer. The entire rural affair is a daisy chain of twangy clichés that never leaves anything up to chance.
Maybe worst of all, Country Strong casually abbreviates every major trauma it addresses, from Kelly’s addictions and lost pregnancy to Chiles’s deadbeat parents and Beau’s conflict between love and fame. This pattern comes to a head when Kelly visits a cancer-stricken boy at the local Make-A-Wish Foundation. The sheer manipulation on display as the camera cuts back and forth between Kelly’s improvisational ballad and James’s teary-eyed visions of hope is borderline insulting, not because of the intent but the failed groundwork to establish them as complex entities. These aren’t fully developed characters, but actors spewing out lines that read like greeting cards. “She used to have fire in her. When did she become so fragile?,” James says of Kelly later in that scene, and his trite reflections put an exclamation point on the film’s absurd notion of what it means to doubt, love, and ultimately heal.
Midway through Country Strong, a minor character screams what turns out to be a prophetic statement for the viewer. “I can’t believe I fell for this shit twice!” As Kelly haplessly feels sorry for herself, James bumbles through self-explanatory justifications, Beau repeatedly tries to reconcile his love for music and a woman, and Chiles innocently wonders about the future, I was genuinely angry I had to fall for this shit once. Hopefully, country music and its fans will recognize Country Strong as the toothless, cloying melodrama that it is and demand a better product to represent their many worthy conflicts and realities, hopes and dreams. Not sure I’d stake the farm on it though.