Country Strong opens promisingly enough: it uses the opening scenes to set up its premise and establish its backstory. Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a multiple Grammy winning country music artist who is in rehab after a concert meltdown which also either caused or contributed to the loss of her unborn child. She is befriended by Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund). Then her manager and husband (Tim McGraw) shows up to take her out of rehab early and get her back on the concert trail. He insists on taking a fresh, young ingénue (Leighton Meester) with them; she wants Beau as an opening act and security blanket. From such setups good movies have been made. Maybe, a lot of good movies have been made because there are so many places one can take that story. It could be about Kelly’s attempts to regain her career. It could be about the relationship between her and her husband. It could be an adultery romance about how Beau is the only one who really sees and loves her. It could be a bildungsroman about Beau and how he wants his own success, the ingénue, or to turn his back on the performing life. It could give up any pretense of a story and just string country music concert footage together. It could spring off from its premise in any number of directions and still be a good, effective film. What it can’t be–at least in my book–is about all of those things (and more), since many of them pull in opposite directions from each other.
It certainly doesn’t help matters much that writer/director Shana Feste appears to have adopted the conviction that every single scene must deliver a knockout punch and so will only ever throw haymakers. Such a structural design is hard enough in an action film, but it is near impossible in a melodrama. The internal logic that will demand characters act in such a way as to bring any one scene to a dramatic head is seldom sustained and often contradicted, making the film feel as though it lurches in various directions rather than ever moving, at whatever speed, towards a consistent goal.
Neither does it help that the film has apparently adopted the Law & Order symbolism attitude towards Christianity, that anyone who wears a cross, goes to church, or invokes the name of Jesus must, in the next thirty minutes, be shown to be a hypocrite, kill someone, or commit adultery. I’m sure there is plenty of hypocritical, visible Christianity in the country music world (as there is in the suburban world or business world), but there is a fine line between representing that all faiths or ideologies have hypocritical adherents and saying that such hypocrisies are the sum total of what said ideologies are comprised of.
The religion stuff is a red herring, though, I know. It wouldn’t bother me if I was focused on the story or if I could see these characters as realistic people with actual human flaws. There’s not really much of a story to focus on, though, and to the extent the film invites us to see the characters as realistic, its coda (presented in a letter from Kelly to Beau) vigorously defends the worst choices those characters have made. Even that position might work narratively if the film could convincingly argue that there is a connection between those decisions and the qualities (often talked about but rarely displayed) that are supposed to make these characters, admirable, interesting, or even just “Country Strong.”
Having said all that, I feel constrained to add that the theater I saw the film in was fuller than I expected, and the crowd watching it appeared to be getting what it wanted. I’m searching for a way to say that the film might not be bad but just designed to appeal to a different demographic. I just haven’t found a way to say it that doesn’t imply that said demographic is comprised of those people who don’t care if a movie is bad as long as it is about a subject that they like.