23rd Jul2013

‘What Doesn’t Kill You’ Review

by Mark Allen

Stars: Mark Ruffalo, Ethan Hawke, Amanda Peet, Donnie Wahlberg | Written by Brian Goodman, Paul T. Murray & Donnie Wahlberg | Directed by Brian Goodman


There’s something of a recurring theme with my DVD reviews, that of the film with a protracted release schedule and incredibly misleading cover image. In the case of What Doesn’t Kill You the year was 2008 and the picture is that of an exploding truck surrounded by SWAT cops. There’s a scene with a similar truck and some cops are involved but there’s neither an explosion nor any intense action sequence of that level.

I didn’t know what the cover looked like going in, mind, so it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the film, a ‘based on true events’ cautionary tale about two childhood friends (played by Mark Ruffalo and Ethan Hawke) who get involved in organised crime at a young age and the paths their ambitions lead them down. Hawke plays the more pragmatic of the two, living life as it happens and not tying himself to serious relationships because he knows the nature of his business means he could be whisked away at any moment, while Ruffalo plays the troubled drunk with a wife and kids he doesn’t know what to do with and a burgeoning crystal meth addiction to contend with.

The movie flashes back from an armoured car robbery gone wrong to a linear narrative in which events unfold one after another without much fanfare or predictability. Presumably this has to do with the script having been based on real events and it does offer a nice sense of street-level realism, but it also results in a fairly loose narrative that saunters rather than races to its conclusion. I understand that, sure, some stories need to take their time in order to be told well, but I think that by the third time we see Ruffalo return home at the crack of dawn looking like shit and yelling at his put-upon wife (Amanda Peet) we’ve got it pretty well figured that he’s not doing too good.

Which isn’t to say that Mark Ruffalo isn’t – as ever – a magnetic screen presence. In fact, the performances he and Ethan Hawke give are entirely believable and compelling, especially impressive for roles that sometimes feel a bit removed from their normal comfort zones. They’re fine, but I found myself wishing they had something a little meatier to tackle for most of the films’s running time. Which is kind of a weird notion for a movie that sees both its leads heading to prison and back.

It’s largely an issue of focus: everything in What Doesn’t Kill You is well-honed and professional except the tone and the purpose of the flick. Going back to that first flashforward is a perfect example of this, as we’re later informed (well into the closing minutes of the movie, in fact – oh, and SPOILER ALERT) that the scene never happened – it only takes place in Ruffalo’s character’s mind which would be fine if it only happened then, not when it was made out to be a major bloody plot point. It feels like a hugely unnecessary cop out, a cynical attempt to draw audiences in with a showy heist feel that ultimately doesn’t pay off.

Maybe festival audiences in 2008 felt similarly cheated and that’s why it took so long to get picked up. What Doesn’t Kill You isn’t a bad movie by any stretch but its confused intentions certainly don’t help it.

What Doesn’t Kill You is released on DVD and Blu-ray on September 2nd, courtesy of Signature Entertainment.


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