A film review by Craig J. Koban October 13, 2017

STRONGER jjjj

2017, R, 116 mins.

 

Jake Gyllenhaal as Jeff Bauman  /  Tatiana Maslany as Erin Hurley  /  Clancy Brown as Jeff Bauman Sr  /  Miranda Richardson as Patty Bauman  /  Frankie Shaw as Gail Hurley  /  Danny McCarthy as Kevin Horst  /  Carlos Sanz as Carlos Arredondo  /  Karen Scalia as Lori Hurley  /  Jimmy LeBlanc as Larry

Directed David Gordon Green  /  Written by John Pollono

 

 

 

David Gordon Green's STRONGER is a new biographical drama that takes an intimate look at the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, but it's certainly not the first film to tackle such subject matter over the course of the last year (Peter Berg's PATRIOT DAY beat Green's film out of the gate by several months).  

What chiefly separates STRONGER, though, from previous attempts at detailing such a horrendous day of terrorism is that it's not ostensibly a police procedural the way Berg's film was.  Instead, Green's film more compellingly hones in on how the day in question inalterably affected the life of one individual and how that, in turn, affected multiple lives of those close to him.  Those looking for a manhunt thriller about the Boston Marathon bombings should probably seek out PATRIOT'S DAY, but those wanting to explore how the event nearly destroyed one man's life and how he found it within himself to persevere and move on...STRONGER is the one for you. 

It's the sad human price that the bombings had on those that most directly suffered from it that, when all is said and done, has the most sizable dramatic weight, and it's the deeply heartfelt and personal prerogative that makes STRONGER such an enthralling watch.  It's noteworthy that the Boston Marathon bombing itself is dealt with in a mostly oblique manner and barely occupies much of the film's running time.  Green is not so much fascinated by why and how the bombings were perpetrated, but rather by how a large scale and devastating day in American history had such a traumatic impact on an individual, in this case double leg amputee victim Jeff Bauman, a Bostonian that became a celebrity overnight after a survival picture of him post-blast surfaced in the media.  Bauman, without question, deserves serious respect for the hellish ordeal he went through in recovering from his near fatal injuries, but STRONGER is not a one note piece of easy hero worship, nor is it an easily digestible bit of inspirational audience clap trap.  The film's grasp digs deeper than most uplifting docudramas and endeavors to go for a warts and all approach to its characters. 

 

 

STRONGER is based on Bauman's memoir of the same name and it introduces us early on to him (played in yet another Oscar caliber performance of grit, vitality, and raw honesty by Jake Gyllenhaal), well before he became the "face" of the Boston Marathon bombing.  Initially, we see him as a rascally foul mouthed hometown boy and die hard Red Sox fan that loves hanging out with his BFFs when he's not still pining for the affections of his ex-girlfriend, Erin (a wonderfully focused and exquisitely natural Tatiana Maslany).  The reasons for their parting are not made explicitly clear, outside of the fact that Jeff's buffoon-like irresponsible nature turns Erin off from feeling like he's a suitable long-term soul mate.  Fate steps in, as it always does, when she makes an impromptu stop at Jeff's favorite bar looking for donations for her upcoming Boston Marathon run, to which Jeff dutifully and enthusiastically pledges support. 

Realizing that he has a golden opportunity to impress the girl of his dreams and potentially win her back, Jeff shows up to the marathon with a proudly handmade banner to lend his support of Erin.  Tragically, Jeff finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time when the bomb goes off and shreds off the lower parts of his legs.  After some grueling life saving surgeries - resulting in both of what was left of his legs being amputated - Jeff is dealt with the crushing blow of what to do with the rest of his life, not to mention the incredibly daunting and physically and mentally demoralizing rehab that's set to come.  He reaches out to Erin and pleads with her to help him with his post-hospital recovery, which she agrees to, much to the chagrin of his domineering and alcoholic mother (Miranda Richardson).  All in all, Jeff seems to handle his situation surprisingly well, but when he arrives back home it becomes clear that he's psychologically unraveling by the day and spiraling into increasingly self-destructive behavior. 

Again, STRONGER's real ace up its sleeve is its overall approach to the reality based material, which never plays things up too saccharinely to prompt easy dramatic payoffs.  Jeff himself is presented in the film as anything but a squeaky clean straight arrow.   He's established early on as a fairly rambunctious young man without any real aspirations, not to mention that he categorically makes multiple bad choices that easily allow for his life - pre and post bombing - to become unstable and chaotic.  If anything, Jeff is both physically broken and mentally messed up, and what makes STRONGER ultimately more intoxicating is how it becomes a richly textured document of one deeply flawed man's recovery.  He also exists within a tight, supportive, but sometimes hostile family microcosm that has some members - including his mother - wanting the very best for Jeff while trying to capitalize on his newfound celebrity status.   

And all of these characters feel real throughout the narrative, and even when it becomes a bit clear throughout certain scenes that some of these people that make up Jeff's family are delineated a tad broadly, they're nevertheless performed with such thankless verisimilitude that you'll be left frequently thinking that you're eavesdropping on an actual family unit.  In many respects, Jeff's family and friends are not fully prepared for the burden and demands of his debilitating condition, especially his mother, whose chronic boozing and un-motherly disposition sometimes gets in the way of healthily looking after Jeff's daily needs.  The observational honesty that Green's understated and spontaneous direction generates helps sell the level of family dysfunction that permeates Jeff arduous grind to return back to some semblance of normalcy.   

The most fascinating character dynamic in the entire film is that between Jeff and Erin, and their arc never traverses down routine and/or clichéd riddled avenues of movie romance.  Conventionally, STRONGER is about a man dealing with a brutally unforgiving rehab via the help of a caring and strong woman, to be sure, but the journey they mutually share avoids TV movie of the week pratfalls and formulas.  What's most challenging here is the reasons why Erin helps Jeff at all.  Does she do it because she still secretly loves him?  Does she do it out of pity or remorse or guilt...or a combination of everything mentioned?  Erin's arc is arguably the most intrinsically captivating one of the film, mostly because Regina, Saskatchewan born Maslany's superbly refined and authentically rendered performance allows Erin to emerge as something much more than a simplistically rendered stock grieving girlfriend type.  She's also a vastly stronger willed character than most other dramas rarely allow for, especially for how she's unafraid to lash out at Jeff while he's at his most demoralized or when he's aggressively hostile to those that are trying to help him.  Jeff may be an amputee that leaves him constantly vulnerable, but Erin doesn't put up with any of his shit. 

Of course, then there's Gyllenhaal, an actor that I've constantly referred to as one of the very best of his generation that has far too frequently eluded Academy Award glory.  He once again gives a nomination worthy turn as Jeff that's powerfully riveting on multiple fronts.  Not only does Gyllenhaal feel convincingly lived-in playing a character born and bred in Baw-ston, but he also has to convey a deeply proud man that simultaneously projects outward confidence that sometimes masks his nagging self doubts, insecurities about the future, and physical pain.  Some of the finest performed moments in the film have Gyllenhaal relaying the whirlwind of emotions that are going through Jeff as he's having to go through the tortuous ordeal of (for example) having his blood soaked bandages removed from his fresh wounds.  Green never sensationally engages in disaster and survivor porn by thrusting grisly details in our faces; moments like these involve simple camera compositions and close-ups of Jeff's face, which is more painful to endure than the gory appearance of his recently severed legs. 

I think this leads me to why I think STRONGER is an atypically potent human drama.  So many other similar examples of this type of uplifting true stories of people overcoming unfathomable obstacles and challenges are oftentimes too safe and pedestrian with the material and hone in on artificially rendered feel good sentimentality.  STRONGER wisely reminds viewers that what happened to Jeff was horrifying and nightmarish; its best message is that recovering from having one's legs amputated is hard...damn hard...and can break the best of people and lead to deeper wounds beyond the mere physical.  That's not to say that Jeff's story isn't uplifting or inspirational, but rather that it takes a decidedly different route to get there.  During many times in STRONGER Jeff even pragmatically asks himself and others around him what's so strong and heroic about being the victim of a bombing.  STRONGER is an uncompromisingly rough film to endure at times, but the manner with which Green transcends cookie cutting fact based dramas and cuts to the heart of his story's brutal truths is what makes it so rewarding to sit through...and one of the best films of year. 

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