It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"Country Strong" is one of the best movies of 1957, and I mean that sincerely as a compliment. Lee Remick would have been terrific in this film — as good as Gwyneth Paltrow is. We live now in more fraught times, with Natalie Portman mentally disemboweling herself for her art while slipping into madness. And I admire Portman, and she will deserve her anticipated Oscar nomination. But "Country Strong" is a throwback, a pure, heartfelt exercise in '50s social melodrama, using such stock elements as a depressed heroine, her manipulating husband, an ambivalent Other Man, and tapping her toe impatiently in the wings, young Eve Harrington eager to swoop in and gnaw the heroine's courage from her bones.
It was shot in a straightforward meat-and-potatoes style, beautifully filmed by John Bailey. It takes place in what could be the Texas of "The Last Picture Show," except for some performances in a modern arena. It stars Paltrow as Kelly Canter, a troubled country singer who has been released from alcohol rehab too soon. Real-life country music star Tim McGraw plays James, the man Kelly married when they were in love, and now stays on as her controlling manager. Garrett Hedlund is Beau Hutton, a singer who "just likes to play music for people" and doesn't care about money. And Leighton Meester as Chiles Stanton, a former Miss Dallas who dreams of stardom.
Beau and Chiles. Man, are those '50s names. The plot does not neglect the tragic loss of Kelly's unborn child; while pregnant and drunk, Kelly fell from a stage. Nor Beau and James, who both fool around with Chiles, and both are probably in love with Kelly. After Beau (apparently) resigns his day job as an orderly at Kelly's rehab institution, these three people move in unison across Texas on a tour route scattered with emotional land mines. Kelly rides in the big customized bus. The rest bring up the rear in an old van.
It is a given that Kelly is a great star. Beau is a damn fine country singer, too good to play in bars that can't even afford enough extras to make up a crowd. Chiles is a promising singer but an emotional basket case because of deep insecurities left over from childhood. She's got herself one of those pinched-up fearful faces with her red lips all forced into a perfect bow, and hair too stiff. She's like a caricature of mama's little beauty pageant contestant until at the end, wow, she scrubs off the makeup and shampoos that hairspray off her hair, and we realize Leighton Meester is a beauty and not a victim of a cosmetics counter makeover.