We’ve all probably seen enough ‘everyday man overcoming adversity/tragedy’ stories to last a lifetime but once in a while one comes down the pike like Stronger to show us how potent these stories can be.
In April of 2013 deadbeat but lovable goof Jeff (a never better Jake Gyllenhall) is trying to win back his girl Erin (a superb Tatiana Maslany). She’s going to be running in the Boston Marathon and he promises he’ll finally ‘show up’ for her after countless times of not doing so. He makes a big sign for her and runs to the finish line of the race to see her. From a distance we see Erin making her way to the end. Then boom, an explosion rocks the crowd. Then another.
For director David Gordon Green, who cut his teeth on rich character studies like George Washington, Undertow, All the Real Girls and Mud, this moves closer to those films than his recent forays into flops like Our Brand is Crisis or wild comedy like Pineapple Express and Eastbound and Down. I think Green’s ability to capture the everyday elements of dealing with sadness and trauma are his best moments. He understands restraint where most directors would try to overwhelm. Take the sequence in the hospital, post-bombing. Erin (a brilliant Tatiana Maslany) is frantically looking for Jeff in the hospital as nurses, doctors and orderlies are running around with bombing victims. Green turns this moment not into a sensory overload but almost into an out of body experience. There’s a strange serenity to it that makes perfect sense. It’s kind of great that the ‘other’ Boston Marathon bombing movie Patriot’s Day already came out because the two films exist on a wildly distant spectrum. Another incredible sequence involves Jeff having his bandages removed after losing his legs. Sean Bobbitt’s camera keeps a very close-up focus on Gyllenhaal in this long, uncut shot and the pain is real. It’s raw and visceral and emotionally brutal. In concert with editor Dylan Tichenor’s unfussy hand, the camera work factors into the majority of the film as an unavoidable, but vital, intimacy.
You’d be hard pressed to find an actor of his generation more versatile and more willing to push himself than Jake Gyllenhaal. Just six months ago he gave us one of his most bizarre and polarizing characters in Okja’s deranged TV host Johnny Wilcox and now in Stronger, Gyllenhaal takes an easily inspirational figure like Jeff Bauman and finds the layers of vulnerability. The actor has proven his willingness to let his body go to extremes for a role (losing weight for Nightcrawler then gaining a massive amount for Southpaw just the next year) and for Stronger it’s no different. Often we’ve seen actors portraying people who have lost limbs but there’s, for a lack of a better word, some weight missing from it. For Gyllenhaal, aided by some extraordinary visual effects, he finds the center of balance change in his body so much so that it’s hard to not believe what you’re seeing. We’re immersed because Gyllenhaal is so immersed, so committed and so perfect here. It’s Oscar-worthy one of the best performances of his career.
Everyone knows Tatiana Maslany can act her ass off. For five seasons on Orphan Black the Emmy-winning actress has played Sarah Manning and her own multiple clone. In playing Erin Hurley, Maslany taps into the trappings of a woman who’s given her guy every possible chance asking herself can she give him one more? Should she? Does a tragedy test a relationship or break it? Maslany constantly finds the balance and nuance here.
The film is constantly taking risks where most other ‘inspired by’ true stories take easy routes. As everyone around him tries to make him into a hero, from ‘you didn’t let the terrorists win!’ randoms (“I’m a hero for standing here and getting mylegs blown off?” Jeff says) to his own mother (a fantastic, boozy, over the top Miranda Richardson) looking to boost his celebrity (and her own) on Oprah, the film resists turning Jeff into a victim or champion of that. Jon Pollono’s script from Jeff Bauman’s autobiography (co-authored by Bret Witter) continually subverts what we think we’re going to see next. But there is plenty of humor in this, too, right off the bat, from Jeff himself when he wakes up in the hospital for the first time. His doofus friend is the one to tell him what happened. “Bro, ya fuckin’ legs are gone, bro,” he ineloquently delivers only to have Jeff respond in writing “Lt. Dan.” If the film has one minor failing it’s the score sometimes betrays the unfolding story by being a little too traditionally inspirational.
There’s a scene late in the film where Jeff finally agrees to meet Carlos Arrendondo, the main in the famous photograph who saved Jeff’s life at the bomb scene. In it, Carlos details a story of deep tragedy and loss and reveals he was at the marathon to ‘show up’ for his boys, closing the loop on one of the film’s main themes and I couldn’t help but want a full movie of Carlos’s story in that moment.
It’s impressive that the film isn’t simply a ‘guy trying to get his girl back’ story, especially since that’s exactly how the it opens. While Jeff and Erin do indeed got back together and broke up and got back together many times over the course of their relationship, it’s their individual struggles that punctuate this story and give it a unique perspective and empathy.
Rated R for language throughout, some graphic injury images, and brief sexuality/nudity
Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, Clancy Brown, Lenny Clark, Carlos Sans.
Lionsgate, Bold Films, Mandeville Films, Nine Stories. Produced by: Todd Lieberman, David Hoberman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Litvak, Scott Silver. Executive producers: Gary Michael Walters, Riva Marker, Anthony Mattero, Peter McGuigan, Nicolas Stern, Jeffrey Scott, Alexander Young.
Director: David Gordon Green. Writer: John Pollono, based on the book by Jeff Bauman and Bret Witter. Cinematographer: Sean Bobbitt. Editor: Dylan Tichenor. Composer: Michael Brook.