As far as inspirational triumph-over-adversity” Oscar bait pictures go, ‘Stronger’ is a surprisingly complex effort. At its best, the film questions the nature of what constitutes heroism and never panders. Well, at least until the end. This genre just can’t help itself.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Jeff Bauman, a man made famous by a photograph of him being carried in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing with his legs reduced to dangling jagged strings of flesh. He was also able to describe the bomber while in the hospital, and after that became a poster child for the “Boston Strong” mentality that helped the city recover from that terrorist event. However, he didn’t actually enjoy or necessarily even deserve the title.
The film comes from Bauman’s own biography and doesn’t present him as a hero. He attended the Marathon only in an attempt to win back his on-again/off-again girlfriend (Tatiana Maslany). Other than that, his primary goals in life involved getting drunk with his friends and/or mother (Miranda Richardson, absolutely brilliant at snarling her way around a Boston accent). That listless alcoholism continues after Bauman’s accident, as he struggles with PTSD, reconnecting with his girlfriend, embracing the celebrity thrust upon him.
Director David Gordon Green (who continues his streak of almost inexplicably diverse directorial choices) admirably presents Bauman as a fuckup who at times is barely even lovable. Gyllenhaal plays him with a disregard for vanity and often even likability. Together, they explore accepting the life of a recent amputee with potent power, finding camera angles and frayed emotions that viscerally thrust viewers into the painful experience like few other movies (and thankfully without ever feeling exploitative). Green also uses his Apatow-encouraged background in improvisation to create a world of charmingly hilarious Boston buffoons who get big accent-fueled laughs without straining authenticity.
For almost the entire running time, Green finds a beautiful balance between stylized subjective filmmaking and painfully naturalistic drama. The movie feels achingly real, and both Gyllenhall and Maslany are remarkable in roles that don’t pander to easy sympathy. Then the eventual third act hard lessons and sweeping emotions arrive. It doesn’t completely derail the movie, but definitely puts it into a cozier and awards-friendly place. That’ll likely get ‘Stronger’ more attention this fall, even if it lessens the movie.
The film is still far more moving and challenging than most of its ilk. This makes for another unexpected win for David Gordon Green, who is about to do a ‘Halloween’ sequel next in a testament to just how unpredictably eccentric that filmmaker has been throughout his underrated career.