Film Review: Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany Make ‘Stronger’ Absolutely Heart-Wrenching

Tears come early and often during “Stronger,” the incredibly moving biopic of Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman. Never manipulative yet always captivating, this portrait of one ordinary man is an extraordinary motion picture. In fact, it’s arguably the best of the year so far. Incredible acting, heavy emotions, and an earned feeling of inspiration come with this one. Even more impressively, none of it is done in the cliched ways of traditional Hollywood biopics. This is a little grittier and more complicated, much like real life. Kudos to all involved here.

Director David Gordon Green centers everything on the central performances, especially in terms of Jake Gyllenhaal. Close-ups of his face during powerful sequences, as well as more common moments, make this all the more intimate of an experience. The camera is right there as Gyllenhaal’s Jeff tries to get out of bed or off a toilet seat and crashes face first onto the floor. You see the agony on his face when that happens, as well as the frustration. Right there as well is Green’s camera for medical procedures, ones that cause as much pain as anything the man has ever experienced. On the flip side, a powerful sex scene is also done in this close-up. It invests you even deeper in this tale than you already would have been.

Bauman’s story is notable because of its simplicity. If anything, he was an underachiever. His tale of triumph is deeply personal, relying fully on his own will to live and go on engaging with life. “Stronger” captures this magnificently, eschewing hero worship. In fact, this is what others require in a hero, whether or not that person wants the job. Furthermore, it hits on how trauma and the survival of a tragedy may seem uplifting to outsiders, but for the victim, it’s anything but. Other characters in the film may find Bauman’s story inspirational, but for him, it’s far from that. He’s just trying to find the will to go on.

We’re introduced to Jeff (Gyllenhaal) as he’s screwing up his minimum wage job, something it seems he’s prone to doing. He’s in a hurry to get to a bar to watch the Red Sox since he’s convinced he’s a lucky charm. There, he has his friends, his uncle Bob (Lenny Clarke), his mother Patty (Miranda Richardson), and a whole community. On that particular day, his on again, off again girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany) has arrived as well, fresh off of their third breakup. Jeff is determined to win her back, but she sees him as a child. They love each other, but he still lives at home, isn’t ambitious, is always late, and in her words, never shows up for anything.

Jeff is determined to prove her wrong this time and has told her that he plans to be at the finish line of the Boston Marathon she’s running in, with a sign and everything. This time, he actually does show up, having even made the sign. Unfortunately, this is 2013, and terrorists detonate bombs at the finish line. Jeff was close enough to the bomb to have seen one of the bombers and actually will be able to identify him to the FBI while in the hospital. Sadly, he’s there because his legs were so badly damaged that they had to be amputated.

Erin races to be by his side, despite opposition from Patty and indifference from Jeff’s father Big Jeff (Clancy Brown). Once out of the hospital, Jeff is hailed by Boston and the country as a hero. His mother embraces it wholeheartedly, parading him in front of cameras at all turns. Erin sees what this is doing to Jeff and stands up to Patty, but he’s unwilling to take sides unless forced.

Despite that, Jeff and Erin begin dating again, even moving in together, under Patty’s roof. Jeff also begins physical therapy, with the hope of being able to use prosthetic legs. This requires dedication though, and Jeff isn’t the most dedicated of patients. His mother is of no help, more concerned with getting him high-profile interviews. Erin is wary of that, especially when one such event showcases the trauma still going on in Jeff’s head. Beyond that, she just knows the environment he’s in isn’t conducive to him actually getting to where they both need him to be.

When his old unreliable habits begin sprouting up again and Erin learns what they’re immediate future holds, she lays down what she needs from. She needs him to show up, something he’s only ever done once, with devastating consequences. This being a true story, you know where it ends up, but watching the evolution of the characters and how they get there is amazing. In particular, a sequence with Carlos (Carlos Sanz), the man who saved his life, is just heart-wrenching.

Two of the best performances of 2017 are easily found in “Stronger”. Both Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany are stunning, turning in work that deserves to be remembered by Oscar voters. Gyllenhaal is as good as he’s ever been, while Maslany might actually be best-in-show here. He embraces Jeff’s flaws, his pain, and his realism about what his life may turn out to be. She’s fierce and loving and unwilling to put up with his crap. A scene in the third act set in a car is one of the best scenes of the year. Emotions are raw and both of them are at the tops of their respective games. You’ll be blown away. This is as human and heartbreaking as Gyllenhaal has been since “Brokeback Mountain“.

Nearly as good as Gyllenhaal and Maslany is Miranda Richardson. Playing a foul-mouthed drunk, Richardson never lets you lose sight of how much she loves her son. He’s all she has, so her dislike of Erin is understandable in a way. Furthermore, she just feels real. It’s a lived-in performance worthy of praise and potential notice come awards season. he aforementioned Clancy Brown and Lenny Clarke are effective in small roles, while Carlos Sanz aces his one scene. Other supporting turns come from the likes of Richard Lane Jr., Patty O’Neil, Nate Richman, Frankie Shaw, and more.

David Gordon Green has made many different types of movies over the course of his career. His brushes with the studio system, outside of “Pineapple Express,” have been lesser works, though “Stronger” is a home run. Brimming with emotion like early Green films such as “All the Real Girls,” this puts characters and heart above all. The quirks of Jeff’s family clearly interest him, as does some of the lesser seen issues relating to the loss of one’s legs. While Green’s style is less on display, this is easily his most mature work to date.

The script by John Pollono is very no frills, though stuffed with Boston personality. The dialogue sounds natural, so while it’s not snappy, it never feels dry. On more than one occasion, what otherwise would have felt close to a standard biopic speech moment is peppered with creative foul language. On the surface, that might not seem to be an improvement, but it gives an already delicious broth some welcome spice.

Below the line, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and editor Dylan Tichenor do fantastic work keeping things tight. Bobbitt captures faces in an intense yet beautiful way, be it a sexy scene, a medical sequence, or just a moment of strong emotion. Tichenor helps Green keep the pace going, as two hours just fly by. The score by Michael Brook hits just the right notes for the material. None of the technical work is flashy, but it all helps make the movie as fantastic as it ultimately is.

As far as biopics go, “Stronger” carves out a small niche by rejecting the concept of hero worship. Instead, it just tells a very human relationship story. This is as much a character study as anything else. Gyllenhaal, Maslany, and Richardson offer up three of the best performances of 2017. One of the absolute top films of the year to date, “Stronger” is a special achievement. If you love awards-friendly biopics but wish they felt a little more realistic and blue collar, this is for you.

“Stronger” is distributed by Lionsgate / Roadside Attractions and opens in theaters on September 22.

GRADE: (★★★★)


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Film Lover

Written by Joey Magidson

When he’s not obsessing over new Oscar predictions on a weekly basis, Joey is seeing between 300 and 350 movies a year. He views the best in order to properly analyze the awards race/season each year, but he also watches the worst for reasons he mostly sums up as "so you all don't have to". In his spare time, you can usually find him complaining about the Jets or the Mets. Still, he lives and dies by film. Joey's a voting member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.


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