Subverting genre tropes, Stronger is a humanist story about triumph over adversity with stellar performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany.
Jeff Bauman’s story feels like one that Hollywood would consume into its “based on a true story” formula and spit out an emotionally manipulative story of triumph over adversity. Stronger is not one of those movies. That’s because it doesn’t focus on the physical obstacles that so many of these kinds of movies zero in on — though it certainly has its share of scenes covering Jeff’s rehabilitation. Instead, Stronger focuses on the emotional and psychological trauma that comes with the physical pain.
Jeff (Jake Gyllenhaal) is your typical blue-collar Bostonian — beer is his water, the bar is his church, and the Red Sox are his savior. He’s the kind of persistent and goofy guys that you date for a while then cut off much like Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany) does to Jeff. Director David Gordon Green doesn’t sanctify Jeff. He shows him as the true man he is flaws and all. The first 10 minutes or so of the film give us some breezy exposition about Jeff, his history with Erin, and his brash, but loving, family. In an effort to win Erin back — she’s tried to break up with him three times at this point — Jeff plants himself at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon with a homemade sign to cheer Erin on. You know what happens next.
Green shows us the bombing from Erin’s perspective, one of many genius directorial moves that maximize the emotional impact of the story. We learn later that Jeff lost both of his legs just above the knee. We see the historical events of the bombing — the hunt for the bombers and their eventual deaths — from a distance even though Jeff was instrumental in the search. That’s not what Stronger is concerned with. This is Jeff’s story.
For such an intimate movie, Green, and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt make the movie so much more cinematic than it could have been. In an early scene, doctors are replacing Jeff’s leg bandages for the first time. Instead of inciting a physical response from the audience by closing in on the actual changing, the camera focuses on Gyllenhaal in the foreground as the pain overcomes him — the procedure occurs out of focus in the background. The medical team coaches him through while Erin stands by unsure of her place in the procedure. The single take is effective in portraying the physical pain but also sets up Erin and Jeff’s story as well.
Gyllenhaal is such a physical actor that it’s a wonder it has taken him this long to do this type of story. However, it’s one that he’s born to play. He knows how to emote huge emotions without feeling overwrought. It’s one of the best performances of his career and one that I think will earn him his long overdue Oscar. However, Maslany keeps up with him beat for beat. Erin is a strong character, which Maslany is sure to show at the beginning, however, that just makes her times of vulnerability more jarring. The pair is breathtaking. Oscars, pay attention.
After some expected scenes of the physical anguish experienced by amputees, the movie shifts to a wholly unique perspective of a man thrust into heroism, even though he’s reluctant. “Boston Strong” became a phrase often used following the attack and Jeff became a symbol of that phrase. However, the weight of it takes a toll on him, especially when PTSD begins to settle in. That’s not helped when his hard drinking and smoking mother (Miranda Richardson, a delight here) starts to push Jeff further into the spotlight, which just draws him into himself. All the while, Maslany plays the role of the long-suffering sidekick, who is given time to flesh out her own character’s journey.
Stronger touches on a lot of points that make Jeff’s emotional recovering all the more daunting — countless appearances, 9/11 truther types. However, it never forgets its focus — Jeff and Erin. Both characters are going through an intense psychological journey that eventually comes to a head one night in a scene that I’m sure will be played at the Oscars if both actors are rightfully nominated. We watch them grow, grow apart before both of them learn how to live for themselves and for each other. It’s the kind of intelligent adult drama that we need to see more of.
Stronger surprised me in the best way possible. It’s filmmaking at its finest. Green takes a seemingly uncinematic story and turns it into a poetic film that begs to be watched. It’s about struggle and the love that we have to finally accept to overcome that struggle. It doesn’t take the easy route to portray that. Instead, what we get is a cinematically bold and emotionally rich story that’s inspirational without feeling self-important. Stronger is about the human spirit. And that no matter how much you bend or warp it, it’s almost impossible to break. It’s the kind of humanist drama we need right now. One that is doused in hope and love.
★★★★ out of 5