Movie Review: 'Stronger'
Gyllenhaal delivers Academy Award level performance in Boston Marathon bombing drama.
Stronger stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Jeff Bauman, a man who lost his legs to the bombing at the 2013 Boston Marathon. Before the marathon, Jeff was just an anonymous Costco employee who loved the Red Sox and wanted to reconcile with his girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany) who dumped him because he rarely showed up when he was supposed to. On April 15, 2013, Jeff finally showed up at the Boston Marathon in the hope that his homemade sign cheering Erin on to the finish line might win her back.
Stronger was directed by David Gordon Green who directs the film with an aim for authenticity. The raw style of the early portion of Stronger is as powerful as the story itself as the look of the film captures a feeling of real life. Once the bombs go off and we know that Jeff has been badly injured the story turns to Erin who wasn’t sure that Jeff had come that day as he’d so often failed to show up. Her search to find out if he’d actually been there that day is incredibly affecting especially as she finds herself over run by his brutish Boston family and friends who aren’t so kind to the girl who dumped their boy.
Maslany is a wonderful actress whose face communicates nearly as much as her words. She’s wearily beautiful, sad but strong. She feels guilt for having been the reason that Jeff was there that day but there is a limit to how bad she’s willing to feel about it. It’s a powerhouse performance and one that I hope will remain in people’s minds through the awards season. Maslany’s best scene is yet another break up between her and Jeff where she refuses to be his emotional punching bag and puts aside her pity for his loss in order to protect herself from his emotional abuse. The scene is raw and emotional and weighty and Maslany is brilliant.
Naturally, however, Stronger lives and dies on the performance of Jake Gyllenhaal and it is yet another powerful and effective performance. Gyllenhaal crafts a warts and all performance as Jeff Bauman and the film is smart to embrace all sides of this complex man who refused to see himself as a hero who survived a terrorist attack but rather as just a victim. In his mind, all he did was get blown up, he doesn’t see that surviving was heroic in its own way and living beyond the loss and pain was inspiring.
People who’ve never lost a limb cannot begin to understand the challenge that Jeff Bauman was facing. Stronger is remarkable in communicating Jeff’s struggles without spending any time on expository dialogue. Jeff’s struggles are communicated through action, through Gyllenhaal struggling not to use the legs we know he really has. Losing a limb has so many complicated aspects, emotional and physical. Your brain takes a while to come around to the idea that the limb isn’t there anymore. On top of the physical struggle there is the PTSD and for Jeff there was also the burden of familial expectations and pressures and the pressure of his rekindled relationship with Erin.
Jeff was also struggling with alcoholism, his own and that of his mother Patty, here played by Miranda Richardson. The codependency of their relationship is another aspect of the story that director David Gordon Green doesn’t feel the need to verbalize. The fact that a man in his 30s who drinks too much, works at Costco, and lives with his mother is enough to tell us what we need to know about Jeff’s problems. There is no need for speeches or any dialogue at all, Gyllenhaal and Richardson tell us all we need through the lived-in way they treat one another.
The remarkable authenticity of Stronger recalls the early directorial efforts of David Gordon, especially his breakthrough feature All the Real Girls. That film thrived on the authenticity of its characters and the West Virginia setting. Similarly, Stronger feels like a Boston movie. The accents are thick but believable, the actors all seem authentically, stereo-typically Boston and, most importantly, Gyllenhaal, though not from Boston, mimics a Boston guy beautifully. Gyllenhaal was likely helped by his passion for telling Jeff Bauman’s story and the time he spent learning from the real Jeff Bauman on whose memoir the film is based.
I don’t quite understand the release strategy for Stronger. The film arrived on 500 screens almost at random with little lead up promotion. The film will be expanding next week following its surprisingly strong Top 10 finish, finishing ahead of the wide release horror movie Friend Request. That said, I wonder if the film will get the kind of awards push that Gyllenhaal and the film truly deserve. This is the kind of powerhouse performance that deserved more pre-release buzz rather than arriving as such a surprise with seemingly no awards strategy.