I’m kind of fed up with traumatic recovery movies. Hard-knock tales about the resilience of the human spirit, I mean. Protagonists walloped and nearly destroyed by some godawful tragedy only to gradually fight their way back to a semblance of a normal life.
And so I sat down to watch David Gordon Green and Jake Gyllenhaal‘s Stronger (Roadside, 9.22) with a guarded attitude. Here we fucking go again, I told myself — the story of real-life Boston bombing victim Jeff Bauman (played by Gyllenhaal) overcoming the loss of his legs and becoming a hero of perseverance. This is certainly what’s been sold by the trailer, which is full of rah-rah uplift.
Well, guess what? Stronger includes a few inspirational moments in the third act, but mostly it’s a darker, grimmer and more despairing thing than you might expect. It’s been shot and cut in an intimate, off-angled way, and it certainly doesn’t unfold in the usual manner, at least in terms of rousing third-act recovery music and scenes designed to tug at your heartstrings. And Gyllenhaal, it must be said, really drills into Bauman’s pain, shock and despair, and I mean in a Robert De Niro-as-Jake LaMotta sort of way.
Is this Gyllenhaal’s most award-worthy performance ever? That’s a tough call for a guy who’s slammed it out of the park four or five times over the last dozen years (Brokeback Mountain, Zodiac, Nightcrawler, Demolition, Nocturnal Animals) but I honestly think it might be.
Augmented by some first-rate CG that totally convinces you that his legs are truly absent, Gyllenhaal’s Bauman is certainly more intense and blistering than Gary Oldman‘s Winston Churchill, I can tell you that. And I really admire that he never seems to be trying to charm the audience into liking him. That’s partly an aspect of John Pollono‘s script, which is based on “Stronger,” a personal recollection book by Bauman and Bret Witter, but it also comes from Gyllenhaal’s bravery.
The overall emphasis is a lot more on “fuck me” and “this really sucks” than “I not only have the strength to improve my life and make things better all around, but I will make you, the popcorn-munching audience member, feel better about your own life in the bargain.”
Maslany is not…how can I put this?…she’s not exactly my idea of an actress I’d like to hang with for long periods of time or, you know, have a couple of drinks with or whatever, and she’s certainly not the birds-of-a-feather equal of Gyllenhaal in terms of basic attractiveness, but she knows how to make difficult situations and emotions play in relatable dramatic terms. (Last February’s announcement that Bauman and Hurley intend to divorce is ignored by the film.)
The degree to which Stronger is not a formula recovery flick can’t be over-emphasized. The trailer makes it seem like an uplift thing but the trailer lies.