MOVIE REVIEW: Stronger
STRONGER-- 4 STARS
Stronger is, emphatically, the movie Patriots Day should have been a year ago. The resonance surrounding the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing has always been more about the people than the bravura. We deserved the real thing, not an overly convenient composite character in a Mark Wahlberg glamour project.
The most and maybe only genuine portion of Peter Berg’s film came in its extended epilogue of testimonials given by the actual citizens and participants. Real respect and passion showed up after two hours of exploitative action. David Gordon Green’s Stronger, based on the memoir of the same name by Jeff Bauman and Bret Witter, flips that ratio to deliver and demonstrate true dignity and tribute.
On the afternoon of April 15, 2013, Chelmsford native Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) skipped part of a work shift as a chicken roaster at Costco to be at the marathon finish line with a homemade sign to cheer on his ex-girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany). Erin was in the final mile before the finish line when two explosions rocked Boylston Street at 2:49pm. The first bomb mangled both of Jeff Bauman’s legs leaving him critically wounded in a rescue scene immortalized on camera by AP photographer Charles Krupa.
Jeff’s dire injuries led to double above-the-knee amputations and the chilling realization of a life forever altered. Thrust into the public spotlight as a symbolic hero of the event, Jeff found more reluctance than prestige, where he could not bring himself to meet the cowboy-hatted Carlos Arredondo (Carlos Sanz) who saved his life. His family and friends, led by his exasperated and constantly-sauced mother Patty (an impressive Miranda Richardson), selfishly feed off of the fame and ignore the drunken survivor’s guilt, acute PTSD, and the consistency necessary for his rehabilitation. The one person who remains in his life that acknowledges and battles Jeff’s demons is Erin.
Jake Gyllenhaal always gives 110% of himself to every role he takes on. His doleful eyes of sadness are paired with his bulging neck veins of frustration to paint Jeff as a tragic figure worthy of earning redemption after enduring rock-bottom lows. Jake is nothing short of dedicated and fearless. Robbed of an Oscar nomination for Nightcrawler three years ago, he deserves Oscar consideration again. The 36-year-old is quickly climbing the list of actors who are becoming incapable of giving a bad performance even in terrible movies. Luckily, this is a damn good one.
Toe-to-toe with Jake’s dedication, Stronger gracefully slows down in the presence of Tatiana Maslany. She is a beacon that still carries her own toughness. Erin and Jeff’s budding romance represents the peaks above the dark valleys of painful setbacks and discouraging relapses. Mark her down as Oscar-worthy as well.
Like The Fighter and Good Will Hunting before that, Stronger is at its best when the rough edges of the overplayed Boston malapropism (see Lesson #1 below) are sanded away to centralize on humane substance. Erin and Jeff’s nucleic scenes combine hard honesty with a restraint. Supported by gentle musical interludes from Brooklyn composer Michael Brooks, 12 Years a Slave cinematographer Sean Bobbitt sells the unseen over the explicit. His work hides wincing ugliness just out of frame or masks it through haze and blur to create a palpable intimacy that is visually beautiful.
Diametric to its title, the core of Stronger’s life after trauma chronicles a venerating angle applied to the “Boston Strong” nature with little melodrama. This is director David Gordon Green’s best film to date, easily surpassing the fad success of Pineapple Express. Stronger’s touching tone carries unmistakable courage and inspires an unshakeable stir of appreciation.
LESSON #1: PROFILE OF A STEREOTYPICAL BOSTONIAN-- The cinematic character trait ingredient list for this urban demographic is perpetuated by Stronger and includes the following: signature dropped Rs accent, not-so-mildly bigoted white privilege, a conversation gear just for arguing, use of one’s outdoor voice indoors, blunt lack of forethought or internal monologue before speaking in that outdoor voice, manic sports superstitions and obsessions, hopeless romantic tendencies underneath tough-talk hardass exteriors, and blue collar Catholicism with a looseness for profanity, all of which was taught to them by equally combative and sh-tty parents. Somewhere in there is the definition of “Boston Strong.”
LESSON #2: “GO F--K YOURSELF” MEANS THE SAME THING AS “BLESS YOUR HEART”-- Both are dismissive pleasantries, only the former tries less to hide the contempt. Nothing cuts to the chase like the F-word.
LESSON #3: STAND BY YOUR MAN-- Out of equal parts guilt and love, Erin takes it upon herself to work around Jeff’s cluelessly selfish family to be a genuine conduit for Jeff’s mental recovery, physical healing, and overall best interests. She becomes the stability he needs and weathers all of the ugly moments that come with that care. Lesser women couldn’t do this.
LESSON #4: STAND BY YOUR WOMAN-- Jeff and Erin have been on-and-off romantically for years. According to her, what always cost them a steady relationship was Jeff’s unreliability. Erin’s plea throughout the film is for Jeff to “be present,” because when Jeff is around, the world lights up. If a good woman takes care of you, you need to take care of her, and you don’t need two legs to do that. You need a committed heart and proper effort.