“I’m a hero for just standing there and getting my legs blown off?”
Another year, another fantastic performance from Jake Gyllenhaal. It almost feels redundant to say that Gyllenhaal is remarkable in a movie these days, but in David Gordon Green’s tragically true yet uplifting tale of the immeasurable strain a cowardly, horrific act of terror can have on a man and his loved ones, it is the two excellent main performances and Green’s assured directing that elevate this story well above similar films we’ve seen on the big screen in the past.
Stronger follows the true story of local good-hearted yet lackadaisical Bostonian Jeff Bauman, who after seeing his ex-girlfriend Erin Hurley, (the phenomenal Tatiana Maslany) raising money for the hospital she works at by running in the Boston Marathon, tells her he’ll be there to greet her at the finish line in a charming, supportive gesture. Unfortunately the year she happens to be running is 2013, the year of the devastating Boston Marathon bombing which resulted in the deaths of three people and several hundred others being injured, one of those people being Jeff Bauman who ended up having both legs amputated above the knee. While Patriot’s Day earlier this year dealt with the same heart-breaking day, it was mainly about the police’s fervent manhunt for the two terrorists, Stronger instead focuses on Jeff’s recovery and how his injury affects those around him. Jeff’s injury only ends up highlighting the flaws he had before he ever went to the finishing line that day. He’s unreliable, lazy, drinks too much and fails to stand up for himself against his alcoholic yet affectionate mother (the great Miranda Richardson). All this plus a double amputation really makes for a challenging and compelling recovery and Gyllenhaal is so captivating you can’t help but sympathise profusely.
The main heart of the film lies with Jeff and Erin. Having broken up three times before the bombing, Jeff’s injury forces them together and makes the re-evaluate their feelings towards each other while Erin shows tender support as Jeff unwillingly becomes a hero to the people of Boston which he understandably struggles with. Gyllenhaal and Maslany (who is fantastic on sci-fi series Orphan Black) have a beautiful chemistry and you really feel the past between them which is a credit to their performances. One of the few times Jeff shows up for Erin, he is scarred for life and Erin is left riddled with guilt for allowing Jeff back into her life once again. That plus Jeff’s family encouraging TV interviews and public appearances while Jeff’s enthusiasm at physical rehabilitation dwindles make for some interesting tension between Jeff’s Mother and Erin. Both want best for him but have varying methods. In lesser movies, Maslany would just be given a basic, underdeveloped ‘girlfriend’ character but here she has the space to be equally as sympathetic as Jeff. She loves Jeff but knows he’s not perfect and despite this year being a brilliant year for strong female performances, I wouldn’t sleep on her getting several award nominations. To hold your own against an in-form Gyllenhaal is very impressive and I’m hoping her career really takes off now. She is a remarkable talent.
This is a very well made movie and a surprising entry into the filmography of David Gordon Green. His journey from Pineapple Express to this shows how versatile he is as a filmmaker and he wisely knows when to sit back and let the actors do their thing. While DiCaprio now has his long-awaited Oscar, I think it’s Gyllenhaal who is overdue one now and with Stronger he once again puts in a worthy performance and reaffirms himself as one of the greatest actors of the past decade.
While Stronger may not revolutionise, it is a beautifully acted film, treating a horrendous act of violence and the resulting trauma with the sensitivity it deserves and doesn’t try to sugar-coat anything making for an emotionally satisfying and powerful story. Oh, and it goes without saying, but bring tissues.
So until next time…
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