A man sits up in a hospital bed, nervously talking to his doctors. We peer down from just above his left shoulder, seeing his tense profile, his hands gripping the blankets, the arms of the medical staff hovering, straightening, tucking. He has lost his legs, and as they start to change the bandages, he begins to scream. It’s routine, a part of his time in the hospital, but that doesn’t make it hurt less. Another face enters the frame, comforting, calming, soothing, but obviously also distraught. It’s just another day in recovery, and it is horrifying, but no one there is alone.
It’s scenes like this one that make Stronger, a deeply affecting biopic from director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) and screenwriter John Pollono, rise above most of its ilk. One could be forgiven for hearing that this is a film about the Boston Marathon bombing and staying away at all costs — such films often aim for inspirational with a capital I and plumb no deeper than that — but to sleep on Stronger would be to rob yourself of two of the year’s best performances, and of a story told not in broad strokes but in tiny, human details. This is a film that flies in the face of expectations. It knows what these movies are like, and it wants no part of that manipulative, greedy storytelling. That is, until the last 20 minutes. That’s a problem that can’t diminish what precedes it, but certainly inserts an undeniably sour note into an otherwise remarkable film.
Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) roasts chickens at Costco, a job that takes an unquestioned backseat to his responsibility to the Boston Red Sox — if he’s not watching in a bar with his friends, they lose. While performing this sacred duty, he runs into a recent ex, Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany, in a performance that will hopefully make her as lauded for her film work as she was for her remarkable turn on Orphan Black). Her discomfort at seeing him falls away when he strong-arms the entire bar into funding her marathon run with a “skip a round of Stella, you fat fucks!” As he makes the rounds, she smiles, and you can see exactly how their on-again, off-again thing works. It’s a great beginning to a romantic comedy.
Except, of course, it isn’t. As the usually unreliable Jeff waits at the finish line, hand-lettered sign held high, the film switches to Erin’s perspective as a fireball goes up in the distance. The discovery of Jeff’s injuries, his long road to recovery, and the strain and strength with which it imbues their relationship becomes the focus, a pairing severely frowned upon by Jeff’s mother Patty (Miranda Richardson, alternately great and overplayed, depending on the scene). As Jeff struggles with his new reality and with the expectations he’s now facing from the world, he takes one metaphorical (or literal) step forward for every two he takes back, and the wear begins to show.
While it might not be his most daring performance, it’s possible that Stronger is Gyllenhaal’s best. Green and Pollono are smart enough to see what they have in their star, allowing his faculties for emotional complexity to do a great deal of the film’s heavy lifting. Gyllenhaal says as much with a tight-lipped thumbs-up as he does with a howl of resentment and fury, as much with a fumbling, awkward phone call as a well-told lie. It’s a performance that would be remarkable even without the technical mastery on display. His physical performance is so committed, so natural, that it’s easy to forget that we’re seeing the result of special effects wizardry and great acting. In Gyllenhaal’s hands, Bauman’s entire center of gravity shifts, in more than the most obvious sense. It’s a substantial achievement, made all the more remarkable by the actor’s simple, honest, unsparing approach.
He’s joined in that by Maslany, who’s equally as engrossing in a role that offers far less in the way of dramatic fireworks. As a performer, Maslany might be even better suited to Pollono’s detail-rich style than Gyllenhaal. If Jeff Bauman sits at the center of a terrifying whirlwind, it’s Hurley who’s tossed around in the storm, trying desperately to anchor herself and to serve as an anchor for the person she loves. Maslany lets us in on Erin’s need to be calm, be present, be patient, be honest, be supportive, be strong; to be all of the things those we love need us to be when disaster strikes. But as Jeff slams down ever-harder on the self-destruct button, Erin’s struggles evolve, and it’s in these moments that Maslany shines brightest. She lets anger mingle with grief, fear with resentment, love with guilt. Pollono has a clear understanding of this complicated cocktail, and his script allows Maslany to dig deep — rarely has the purchase of an Almond Joy carried so much weight.
It’s the details like that Almond Joy that make Stronger truly special. Aided by Green’s smart, restrained direction, Pollono’s adaptation of Bauman’s autobiography makes its story all the more universal by eschewing judgment, cheap sentiment, and broad brushstrokes. The family cheers when it’s announced that the first bomber has been killed; Erin looks on silently. Later, when she sits quietly with Jeff in his hospital room, a second round of applause erupts from a room down the hall. The bombing itself is seen only briefly until late in the film; when we first catch flashes, it’s used to illustrate Jeff’s panic and pain, rather than to shock or distress the audience. There’s no need to tell us that Jeff is dealing with severe anxiety.
These displays of emotional intelligence and restraint, of looking at the demands we place on the faces of tragedy, make the film’s descent into something more base all the more distressing. It’s unfortunate that the pin on which the film turns centers on Jeff’s meeting with his rescuer, Carlos (Carlos Sanz, in a moving performance that deserves better from the film). Jeff spends the first half of the film trying to be what everyone wants, and much of the second rejecting the burdens placed on him to be “Boston Strong,” albeit in ways both destructive to himself and to those he loves. After meeting Carlos, however, he finds himself inspired to be capital-I inspirational, and when he makes this decision — an admirable and understandable one — the film makes the same one. Sadly, it’s something Jeff is simply better at than Stronger.
Perhaps if there wasn’t so much evidence of smarter and subtler minds at work throughout the film, it would be easier to dismiss the ways in which the story suddenly becomes so much simpler. The music swells. Flags wave. A hero wheels another hero onto a baseball field, and the person of color who rushed into the flames takes a backseat to the good-looking white survivor. It’s not the place of a critic to say what a movie should be, but Stronger spends most of its runtime proving that it’s capable of great depth and insight, before leaving both of those qualities in the dugout. As a crowd swarms Jeff, the film tells us exactly what to feel and why we should feel it, and that would be much easier to swallow if the previous two hours hadn’t managed to avoid that very pitfall.
That frustration colors much of this writer’s reaction to an otherwise noteworthy film, but the power of what precedes such a shallow and contradictory turn shouldn’t, and frankly can’t, be ignored. Films of this nature typically play to the cheap seats, demanding your emotions instead of earning your investment. There’s a reason they call them tearjerkers, not tearcoaxers. For the majority of its runtime, Stronger manages to escape the traps that populate such films. It’s worth seeing, and worth your investment. Let’s just hope that next time around, Pollono and Green find a way to stick the landing.