Stronger is emotionally potent true-life cinema, a cautiously inspiring film about grotesque physical and mental tragedy, and a film that resists easy sentimentality which would have cheapened the overall package. Directed with a strong sense of focus by the eclectic filmmaker David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express, Snow Angels, Joe), the film was written by first-time screenwriter John Pollono, who adapted the novel of the same name by Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman and Bret Witter. Stronger is anchored by the customarily intense and all-together fantastic Jake Gyllenhaal, who in film after film over the last 10 years, has demonstrated some of the best acting chops and taste in material without ever truly getting his full due from critics and audiences.
Consider this list of recent films and performances: Prisoners, Nightcrawler, Okja, Brokeback Mountain, Jarhead, Zodiac, Rendition, Brothers, Source Code, End of Watch, Enemy, Southpaw, Everest, Demolition, and Nocturnal Animals. This guy is on creative fire like few others in recent years. In Stronger, he plays it close to the vest and gets extraordinarily intimate with both Green and versatile cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (The Place Beyond the Pines, Shame), as well as his superb co-star Tatiana Maslany, who I’ve never seen on-screen (not viewed Orphan Black yet…), but hope to see a lot more of in the future. She’s absolutely spectacular in a fully-fleshed out “girlfriend role” that feels just as important and moving as Gyllenhaal’s gutsy lead performance. They have genuine emotional and sexual chemistry, and share one scene of extreme intimacy which is heightened because of the tragic circumstances of the situation.
The film centers on the harrowing in-the-moment trauma and grueling rehabilitation process for Bauman, who had his legs blown off below the knees during the Boston Marathon bombing a few years ago. Playing like an excellent counterpart to Peter Berg’s riveting and underrated procedural Patriots Day, in Stronger, the filmmakers zero in on one man, and the people that surround his orbit, giving an extremely personal side to this far-reaching event. And yes, you get to find out about “that guy in the cowboy hat,” who in those iconic photos, could be seen rescuing Bauman at the point of impact, his legs a distorted bloody mess, and clinging to life with all that he had left. The invisible and fully seamless visual effects used to show Gyllenhaal moving without his real legs is astonishing, and entirely convincing in every single shot.
Miranda Richardson is unrecognizable and depressingly excellent as Jeff’s alcoholic mother, while Clancy Brown gets some effective scenes as Bauman’s hot-tempered father. The on-screen family dynamics that are depicted feel honest and true to the lower-middle class Boston neighborhoods that are on display, while the “Boston Strong” theme is echoed multiple times, but it never comes off as annoying or pandering, because Pollono’s script never tries too hard, and Green never injected any unnecessary directorial blustering into the proceedings. This is the sort of topical film that audiences have been sadly shunning of late, and its low box-office and early-in-awards-season release date isn’t going to help when trying to get Gyllenhaal a much deserved Oscar nomination (for those who care about these things; I personally don’t, but just making an observation…) or the film any sense of commercial traction.