At the movies: Stronger

Let’s just get this out of the way first: David Gordon Green’s new film Stronger is an inspirational drama. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a Jeff Bauman, a working-class Bostonian who loses his legs in the Boston marathon bombing in 2013. His mother (Miranda Richardson) is overbearing. His family is loud. His on-and-off girlfriend (Tatiana Maslany) is long-suffering. With effort, he recovers. He acquires prosthetic legs, and learns to use them. There are many scenes of Bauman grunting and screaming his way through therapy. He laughs. He cries. He rises above. He is, as the title would have it, Strong (with a capital S), or, rather, Boston Strong. And it is a very, very good movie. I’m just as surprised as you are.

That title doesn’t sit very well on David Gordon Green’s direction or John Pollono’s script; both are so studious in avoiding cliché they almost seem vaguely embarrassed to be making a movie with so overt a premise. Green and Pollono are remarkably deft at tracking the trail of carnage wrought by a fate like Bauman’s, and those family members, friends, and lovers whose trauma rivals the victims’ ceaselessly circulate through the background of the film. The subtleties in this construction are manifold, and it is, at its best, extraordinarily complex, thanks mostly to exercises in omission. Richardson’s matriarch, staring at her son in his hospital bed, faces down the camera for upwards of a minute, while the corresponding instantaneous shot of Gyllenhaal is practically subliminal. In the aftermath of the bombing, as the Bauman family marches through the halls of the hospital, deep in the background, a distraught woman tackles a doctor into a stairwell—we never see either character again. Later, Richardson slowly, painstakingly slips into Gyllenhaal’s room, as we see a man in a cowboy hat walking away down the hall. Richardson: “That was the man who saved your life.” The scene ends. Though never abrupt, Stronger, for most of its runtime, gives exactly what’s necessary and nothing more. The lesson, of course, is that the main flaw in the inspirational comeback genre is not melodrama but lousy editing.

Gyllenhaal, who seems at this point to have been one of the most interesting working actors for close to forever, spends most of the film jaw clenched, with closed lips spread wide across set teeth—his approximation of a smile. Bauman accepts the spotlight because he feels obligated to be, as his father (Clancy Brown) puts it, “a symbol,” but he’s not sure exactly to whom he’s obligated; he hovers between hopeful and distraught at every moment in the film. When he wakes up, intubated and half-conscious, and is informed of his condition, his first thought is to scribble on a proffered pad, “Lt. Dan,” referring to the double-amputee in Forrest Gump. Minutes later, he’s sobbing with pain, then, soon after, tranquil again. It’s jarring, until you realize he’s not being a movie character. He’s just being.

Gyllenhaal tends to outstrip the film’s ambitions, despite Green’s skill. Bauman’s family, especially Richardson’s Patty Bauman, is genuinely compassionate but borderline compulsive about exploiting Jeff’s fame—Patty’s lowest moment comes when Jeff refuses to do an interview with Oprah—and the ensemble scenes often feel like a retread of The Fighter, with Richardson filling the Melissa Leo role (especially given the Boston accents, which are gratuitous and confusing—Maslany slips in and out of hers). The moral, too, is hazy—an appearance at a Bruins game sends Bauman into horrific PTSD flashbacks, and his emotional health skyrockets when he cuts off those kind of hollow public appearances, yet the film’s conclusion, and the proof he’s developed as a person, comes when he throws out the first pitch at a Red Sox game. And omitting the truth about Bauman’s relationship with his girlfriend (they’ve since married and divorced) makes the romantic conclusion the least plausible thing about the film. Yet the film as a whole seems to rebut complaints about realism, or mawkishness; it’s crafted carefully, like a jigsaw puzzle, to shatter expectations about the kind of movie for which the trailer readies you. And if you still tear up at the end? Hell, business is business.