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).
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
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
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.
real ace up its sleeve is its overall approach to the reality based
material, which never plays things up too saccharinely to prompt easy
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
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
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.
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
What's most challenging here is the reasons why Erin helps Jeff at
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
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
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
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.