What exactly did David Gordon Green do to end up on every film critic’s shit list? We have a bizarre habit of encouraging our “auteurs” (if you believe in that nonsense) to go out and do whatever the hell they want to and then trashing them when they come back with work that doesn’t totally meet our expectations. That’s been Green’s career since he teamed up with Seth Rogen and James Franco for Pineapple Express back in 2008, and after a string of weird failures (Your Highness chief among them) and one truly bad movie (The Sitter, the only time he was truly a soulless gun-for-hire), no matter what status affirming work he’s done since then (Prince Avalanche, Joe, Manglehorn), praise has always eluded him. And now he’s returned with Stronger, a story about Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman and his discomfort with being seen as a hero for his Job-like misfortune on that fated Patriots’ Day.
And it’s pretty good!
Free of the hyper-dramatic action movie horseshit that Peter Berg brought to the table when he crafted his celluloid monument to the most famous member of the Funky Bunch, Stronger is arguably a blueprint for making a modestly satisfying and occasionally truly moving examination of the minute after a disaster. It’s another piece of strong work in Jake Gyllenhaal’s formidable post-Prince of Persia career revitalization, and most likely will cause people to reevaluate exactly how panicked they should be when they hear that Green is attached to a project. And all things considered, isn’t that probably for the best?
On April 14, 2013 Jeff Bauman (Gyllenhaal) was just another dude working at Costco who, in his off hours, liked to go to bars with his friends and family and watch the Sox play. He’s got an on-again-off-again girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany), who’s going to significantly better places than he is as a hospital administrator, and she comes to the bar he’s at that night to raise money for her running the marathon. He tells her he’ll be there the next day, but given that he’s a pretty well-established ne’er-do-well, she doesn’t expect too much, Jeff wants to prove her wrong, so he shows up the next day, the 15th, right at the finish line, with a sign of his own making. And then everything goes straight to hell. Jeff loses his legs as a result of the blast, and his life begins to crumble, with both constant media intrusion and the pressures of being the legitimate embodiment of the “Boston Strong” ethos. It’s a significant pressure that’d wreck even the sturdiest people in a time of legitimate chaos, and Green orients most of his around that. Seriously, the marathon bombing and Jeff’s initial recovery is over and done with in the first 30 minutes of Stronger’s two-hour runtime, and that’s to his eternal credit.
It should go without saying that, this after all being a year after 2012, Gyllenhaal gives an excellent performance, and is willing to go as far down as Green is willing to take him. His work here is nakedly emotional and deep, and multifaceted — he is, after all, playing a man who scribbled the words “Lt. Dan” right after asking how how Erin is, and seems as comfortable with a one-liner as he is with a beer in his hand — but his trauma overwhelms him. Green lets his lead show us the depth of his emotional suffering without cluing us into the specifics of his memory until later on; it’s only at his absolute worst moment in the film, where he’s literally crawling to his building’s door for attention, that we flash back and see him lying on his back surrounded by ash and blood and the grisly horror of that awful day.
And so he spirals downwards into booze and pills and good times with friends that would put ordinary men in prison, and it begins to take his relationship with Erin down with him. Maslany is solid here as well- she does a good job suggesting the class differences between Erin and Jeff without drawing much attention to them, and she’s achingly tender and tough when the moment calls for it. They have an instant and interesting chemistry, and I hope to see them paired up again in different circumstances.
Outside of a few incredibly realized shots — the standout of those being a scene in which Bauman’s bandages are changed for the first time and are kept out of focus in the background as we hold tight on the side of Gyllenhaal’s sunken grey face as he winces in pain — Green largely stays invisible and lets his performers dictate the rhythm and styles of any given scene. It works wonderfully well when Gyllenhaal and Maslany are alone together on screen but begins to wilt when more oversized figures in his family come into the picture. The family acts like a Greek chorus, much like in Russell’s The Fighter, though they’re not as completely unsympathetic as they were in that film. His mother (Miranda Richardson) can’t let him go, and keeps him somewhat in a state of perpetual adolescence. He still lives with her, though he holds a good relationship with his separated father (Clancy Brown). They love him deeply and madly, but they’re somewhat bad for him. They indulge Bauman’s worst tendencies, and sell off pieces of him to media outlets without thinking twice (a fight nearly breaks out at a family barbecue when Jeff tells them he doesn’t want to talk with Oprah about his ordeal), but there’s a level of love here given to them by Green that doesn’t exclusively patronize them. It’s still a bit annoying to see the standard Masshole buffet served up for the masses, but at least there’s not a fucking Wahlberg in sight.
The third act is stacked with problems, though most of the individual moments in there work on a scene-by-scene basis. The resolution, featuring a cameo appearance by a Red Sox legend and an acceptance of Bauman’s status as a symbol, feels like a tidy bow on a story that’s much more difficult and complicated to portray. Sure, his success at throwing the first pitch across the plate at a Sox game is somewhat cathartic, but it’s skimping on resolving the relationships that matter the most in the film — Jeff securing independence from his mother, for one — and his status as a soul-healer for the fans who surround him in a circle in the concourse beneath the grandstands, still clutching onto their Fenway franks in awe as he comforts passerby is just painful to watch. Green spends the whole film trying to avoid this kind of naked sentimentality, and it’s a bit disappointing to see it wind up in a lesser film. But the film’s not quite over yet, and its final scene may be the best directed in the whole film. It’s free of any manipulative bullshit — it’s music-free and a deeply emotional moment for all involved, and it’s great to see that Green still understands that understatement might mean more than cynical indulgence.
Anyways, Stronger is a fine film that’ll be swept away in any and all award conversations once the heavy-hitters come near the end of the year, but is well worthy of some respect. Green has crafted a solid and sturdy picture that will undoubtedly play well throughout the nation. Perhaps most importantly, it’s the closest to a truly good narrative movie about the Marathon bombing for at least the next 20 years, or until enough time has passed that the wounds don’t still feel fresh. Who the hell knows when that’ll be, but it’s gotta come someday.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.