by Philip Price
On the surface, “Stronger” is a movie that looks as if it is trying desperately to be little more than an awards-contender. True Story? Check. Tragedy? Check. Severe disability? Check. Indie darling director? Check. Jake Gyllenhaal being intense? Check. So yeah, taking the main factors into consideration it's not hard to see why this would seemingly be anything more than an attempt at scoring Gyllenhaal an Oscar and maybe, to some degree, the hope is that might work out in the end, but it's not the film’s main objective and it certainly isn't where the intent of the film lies as Stronger is easily one of the most genuine movies I've seen all year. Genuine in that it never cops to sensationalizing anything that would be an easy target given the subject matter. No, “Stronger” is a human story, a story about a relationship more than it is the Boston Marathon bombing and within that the film goes to places where it can cut deeper emotionally than it would had the film simply resorted to recreating the horror of that day. Director David Gordon Green, who came to prominence on the back of indies such as “George Washington” and
“All the Real Girls” only to go on to helm big budget comedies like “Pineapple Express” and “Your Highness,” has, in recent years, found a kind of middle ground between these two wide-ranging genres where mid-budgeted, character driven stories featuring big names have become something of the filmmaker's forte. Green only continues to hone this kind of movie-making in “Stronger.” Combining his knack for naturalistic and improvised moments with that of his major studio experience in staging a recreation of the bombing as well as shooting at both Boston hockey and baseball games Green has, in many ways, culminated all his past experiences with “Stronger” and the result is a film that is deceptively simple, deceptively easy to misread and/or label as one thing, but is so much more than it initially appears to be. “Stronger” is a movie that delves into one man coming to terms with a new way of life, a new status among his peers, and a relationship he isn't sure is destined to work out all while recovering from the most traumatic day of his life. “Stronger” doesn't resonate due to big, dramatic moments, but more for the ones that aren't; the quite moments where one can't verbalize why they're significant, but feel that they are. “Stronger” is somehow able to tap into these unspoken moments and is more authentic because of that.
Based on the real-life events of Jeff Bauman and based on a book by Bauman with the help of Bret Witter screenwriter John Pollono has relayed Bauman's story to the screen from the perspective of this single guy's experience rather than trying to make his story a story about all of us. No, this is absolutely and whole-heartily Bauman's story and Green takes this note from Pollono's script and runs with it. From the outset, as we are introduced to Bauman at his place of work at Costco, we become integrated into this blue-collar world of routine and superstitions as it quickly becomes apparent Bauman's enthusiasm for the Red Sox and his belief that his role in viewing the game plays some part in his team winning is of the utmost importance to him. In this opening scene we learn a lot of what we'll need to know about Jeff by the actions he takes and how they indicate where his priorities lie. Jeff convinces his boss to let him off early so that he can go to a specific bar where his brother, uncles and cousins are all watching the game so that he can root them on from a specific seat in the bar. A seat he will swear by helps the Sox win. At this point in his life, Jeff is 26-years old, working at Costco with no seemingly bigger aspirations, and much of his focus on a sports team that neither benefits nor at a disadvantage due to his involvement. And so, when his ex-girlfriend, Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany), shows up at this same bar looking for donations to run in the Boston Marathon Jeff looks to try and win her back by not only garnering her as many donations as he can, but by promising her he'll show up at the race with a big sign to cheer her on. It's not hard to see Erin doesn't really believe a word Jeff is saying as this clearly had some bearing on their break-up, but still-she is charmed. At the same time, we see how much more inspired Jeff becomes when Erin is around-Gyllenhaal somehow seeming to literally light up when Maslany's Erin walks in the room-and in his excitement to craft his own sign for the race that next morning the film exemplifies the fact Erin inherently makes Jeff want to be a better version of himself. Not 10 minutes into the film we are back amid April 15, 2013 when two homemade bombs were detonated 12 seconds and 200 yards apart killing three people and injuring hundreds, including 16 who lost limbs. Jeff Bauman was one of those 16 people who lost limbs, but not his life as he was saved by a Good Samaritan who happened to be in the right place at the right time. It is in the chaos that ensues, not just in the wake of the bombings, but that of the familial kind that drives Bauman to really discover the type of life he wants to lead and who he wants to lead it with; his injury and the baffling attention that comes along with it ultimately serving to make these kinds of definitive decisions all the clearer. And thus, making “Stronger” a movie about self-discovery, but one that avoids many of the tropes of how clichéd that sounds.
Speaking to both how Green has found this middle ground of operating within big studio programming while still being able to evoke the naturalistic and oh so tender moments of humanity that litter his early work as well as the fact “Stronger” is a film more or less about a relationship being put to the ultimate test as framed by an historical event there is a single scene and its execution that exemplifies every good quality and every pure intention that this film has. It comes while Gyllenhaal's Bauman is still recovering in the hospital. Maslany's Erin has chosen to show up thus far-partially because she feels responsible for Jeff being in the position he is and, it seems, partly because she genuinely does care about and miss him. Bauman has seemed pleasantly surprised that his ex-girlfriend has been there and been supportive. The simplest and slightest of affections are heartwarming in the most innocent and hopeful of ways. The moment comes though when Jeff is set to have the dressings on his legs changed for the first time. Green frames it from over Bauman's shoulders so that it is his face that is in focus in the foreground while just beyond his profile we see what is left of his legs sitting on the bed. We don't see the faces of the doctors and nurses around him, but we hear them verbally walking Jeff through what is about to happen; preparing him for the pain and asking him if he wants to look to see or if he prefers to keep his eyes averted. Jeff doesn't want to look, but he's cool and collected. The doctor, continuing to talk, removes the first bandages from Jeff's right leg and Green holds this single shot the entire time. Gyllenhaal never drops from this moment his character is experiencing as he keeps his eyes either closed or locked to somewhere just off screen. The doctors and nurses congratulate Jeff on doing so well throughout the removal of the first dressing, but it becomes immediately apparent as they begin to remove the second that the pain is much worse-the situation and its circumstances that much more real. As Jeff cries out in pain for the first time from out of frame comes Erin. She has been there the whole time. The camera stays on them without a single cut or barely a waver and it is nothing short of a perfect decision. The framing of the shot contrasts the point of the scene with the weight of the emotions occurring during this moment as Green chooses to stay focused on the tight close-up of Gyllenhaal's face while, when Maslany suddenly enters the frame, we understand the patience and healing necessary in this moment and what it essentially means for their relationship on a bigger scale. We understand Jeff is pain, but we also see the curtain being dropped as Jeff allows himself to be vulnerable in front of Erin and Erin actively wants to take care of Jeff. It's a simple shot, but it's perfectly composed in terms of everything that happens within it while getting at the crux of why it is necessary stories such as this are told in the first place.
Though this moment is simple in its execution, but what it contains couldn't be more layered or complex. This couldn't better exemplify that movies are all about the approach to story and the fact that how they are shot greatly influences what we remember about them-if they're memorable at all. Both Green and Pollono seem to understand that, on paper, “Stronger” isn't exactly a movie that is destined to light the world on fire. In fact, they probably realize most audiences will feel as if they've seen something along the lines of this before and we have, but in making decisions such as the one detailed in the previous paragraph “Stronger” is immediately made more memorable not because of what it is saying, but because of the aesthetic serving as something a little more abstract and thus more memorable than the familiar narrative. This aesthetic, that permeates throughout the film, serves to make the purpose of this scene to both help the audience understand something beyond the surface of what is physically happening while keeping a focus on what the movie is about-keeping Jeff and Erin in the foreground and in that tight close-up-holding the shot for as long as he does essentially telling us it's about this love that is meant to last. It's powerful stuff and is only, obviously, made more effective by the powerhouse performances of both Gyllenhaal and Maslany. Everyone knows Gyllenhaal is a master craftsman at this point. The guy, who is only thirty-seven, is so committed to his job and therefore detailing out the accurate emotion and thought behind each line to the point he knows the character and the script back to front in a way that it's almost inevitable that it will be terrific. Gyllenhaal plays Jeff not as the always likable protagonist who we're meant to feel sorry for in that, "why do bad things happen to such good people," sense, but more he is a multi-dimensional human being who is mostly a good guy, but who can be an asshole. Jeff is irresponsible and sometimes infuriating in that he's not mature enough to make the decisions he should so clearly be making, but he's also been through something traumatic and come out the other side a national hero for doing nothing other than becoming paralyzed. We, as the viewer, go through many stages of endearing moments and pure idiotic ones with Jeff, but ultimately this makes the authenticity of it all ring that much truer. And Maslany, as soon as she walks in a room she brings an undeniable warmth with her. It's easy to see why Jeff wants Erin to be there, to serve as a source of comfort, but Erin is equally as complicated in that she is in this position with no seemingly good resolution. Jeff too realizes the situation Erin is in isn't a fair one and while it is this decision to never hold it against her that likely allows for Erin to feel freer about her decision to be with Jeff the two have more than their fair share to overcome including a whirlwind of a performance from Miranda Richardson as Jeff's domineering mother. Each of these narrative details come together to deliver a portrait of lost identity, of dealing with trauma, and the configuring of a new identity in the wake of tragedy to ultimately be a picture of humanity and the fact that while it's not always pretty, it can always prevail.