08th Dec2017

‘Stronger’ Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, Clancy Brown, Lenny Clarke | Written by John Pollono, Jeff Bauman | Directed by David Gordon Green

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David Gordon Green drifts yet further from his Pineapple Express and Your Highness frat comedy legacy with this safe and reverent adaptation of the true-life story of Jeff Bauman, a young Bostonian who lost his legs in the marathon bombing of 2013. You may not be familiar with the tale, but the film’s title will give you an idea of the direction of travel.

Excitement builds for the big race. Jeff (Jake Gyllenhaal) heads to the finish line to cheer his on-off girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany). Suddenly, two bombs explode, maiming the crowd with a rain of shrapnel. Jeff loses his legs. With the help of his family and Erin, Jeff begins his recovery: the traumatic aftermath, the recovery of memories, and the gradual move toward prosthetics.

It’s an all-American story, steeped in sports – ice hockey and baseball, mostly – and the associated ceremonial triumphs. But such forced glories are only punctuation points during Jeff’s struggle. While family members roar joyfully at the killing or capture of the culprits, Jeff’s recuperation is stalling. Empowered strangers proclaim that his resolve proves that the terrorists won’t win, and Jeff looks down at his absent legs and points out that… well, they kinda did.

Jeff is a hotbed of juxtapositions. Against the backdrop of the “Boston Strong” living meme is his essential reluctance to take responsibility – a personal disability that has nothing to do with a lack of limbs. And while he is burdened with a Christ-like hype, Erin despairs at his basic unreliability. The one time he did turn up, she laments, was the day of the marathon. She wonders, did I do this to him?

Guilt looms large over everyone, most of all Jeff. He doesn’t believe he deserves any adoration. The pressure of being a “symbol” to the American people is directly at odds with the uncomfortable truth that he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. An accidental hero, the PTSD shows in his behaviour: the tantrums, the drinking, the fighting.

We’re waiting for that revelatory moment when Jeff decides to embrace his rejuvenation and become – yes – stronger, but thankfully it isn’t played quite as cheesily as that. Montage sequences come tastefully disguised. Indeed, there are some truly moving scenes, invariably unstated, hiding in the cracks between the grandstanding. There’s a particularly excellent callback during a flashback, which powerfully portrays the confusing horror of emergent traumatic memories.

It’s a pity, then, that Stronger spends less time on the thoughtful details, and more time ploughing the Big Dramatic Moments. Michael Brook’s dreadfully whiny score forever threatens to sugar the mood of key scenes, like a maudlin ninja waiting to strike. There’s a beautifully-played episode in a diner – pure simplicity and acting detail – and I was consciously willing the treacly piano to stay silent. Alas, like a ruined marathon runner pushing for the finish, we couldn’t quite get there.

Jeff’s extended family is a rowdy collection of hard-drinking, blue-collar Boston stereotypes with which we’ve become familiar through the likes of Good Will Hunting and The Fighter. The one fleshed-out member is his mother, Patty (Miranda Richardson); and her rivalry with Erin is possibly the most interesting conflict in the film. Patty is pure positivity – on the surface, anyway – while Erin is empathic and practical. Patty’s method lacks subtlety and range; but then, Erin’s approach can be patronising. Neither woman really knows how to deal with the situation. Both want the best for Jeff, yet both are fearful of exploiting him. It’s an insightful push and pull, which is arguably more engaging than the arc of Jeff himself.

The women’s roles are strictly supporting, but both Richardson and Maslany draw the best from parts that could have been mere background texture to Jeff’s plight. Richardson’s performance is broad, yet also witty and sad, while Maslany dodges the simpering better half trope by infusing Erin with wordless ambiguity. Both actresses are cast against type.

Gyllenhaal, meanwhile, has covered similar ground to this character, specifically in Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw, which I feel was the riskier and more challenging performance. Gyllenhaal excels when he’s courting danger, so I can see why he was attracted to Bauman’s imperfect hero. The problem really lies in the direction and the editing, which demands some cringeworthy melodrama moments to go with the aforementioned saccharine score.

As a result, Green’s film remains firmly mid-road. For long periods it feels two-note – misery schmaltz and life-affirming schmaltz – and it’s only through the sensitive efforts of the cast that we get glimpses of something more complex and nuanced. Green’s delivery is leadenly po-faced, rarely daring to tempt gallows humour or acknowledge absurdity. This reverence demands that the only jokes permitted from anyone except Jeff are treated either as misjudged or as harassment.

Naturally, we get pictures of the real-world Jeff and Erin at the end – as if we would expect anything else by that point. Stronger is an unashamed, soft-edged crowd-pleaser, which needn’t be a bad thing. But when you have three actors of this quality in the same room, it seems like an opportunity wasted for something sharper, darker, deeper and altogether stronger.

Stronger is out in cinemas from 8th December 2017.

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