Dagur Kári's The Good Heart is just about the ideal definition of a character study -- a movie that's all behavior with almost no actual plot. In this case, the main character is Jacques (Brian Cox), a crusty bar owner who describes himself as a "dirty old bastard with filthy habits." He's got a bad ticker and understands that he could die at pretty much any moment. This, of course, doesn't stop him from chain smoking, drinking nonstop, and hurling an endless stream of poetically vulgar insults at the regulars who gather at Jacques' place every night. As the movie opens, the old man suffers his fifth heart attack, and during his stay at the hospital, befriends Lucas (Paul Dano), a kind and generous young homeless man who has been admitted because he tried to kill himself. The extroverted Jacques appoints himself mentor to the introspective Lucas, letting him stay at the bar and teaching him how to run the place so Lucas can keep Jacques' legacy alive after his heart finally gives out.
Those who appreciate watching a talented actor have a field day with a great character will savor Brian Cox in this movie. Jacques is a bull, plowing straight through the world, saying and doing whatever he pleases. He's so overflowing with passion and life that people are willing to put up with his angry outbursts. When he tries to mellow with a guided relaxation audio tape, he becomes so agitated that he rips the thing out of the player and shreds it with his bare hands. Lesser actors would be content to ham it up, but Cox inhabits Jacques with such a seedy, lived-in quality that he comes off as a force of nature rather than a showboat.
Cox has a selfless acting partner in Dano, who keeps Lucas' essential gentleness right on the surface, even when the old-timer's lessons in how not to get taken for a sucker by broads or customers start to peel away some of his inherent innocence. The scenes the young actor shares with Isild Le Besco, who plays Lucas' love interest, April, allow him to give his performance a subtle depth that many actors might not be sensitive enough to discover. We've seen Lucas follow along when he's pulled into Jacques' formidable influence, but in the scenes with April we understand how he behaves when, for the first time, he's found something he really wants for himself.
You should be able to discern the end of the film about 15 minutes in, but that's all right -- this is not a film about big plot twists, it's a film about gradual character shifts. The Good Heart gets each and every one of those shifts right; it's a picture that's subtle and patient, but never boring thanks to Cox's marvelous performance.