Gyllenhaal and Maslany deliver powerful performances.
If someone took Hollywood’s top minds, placed them in a room, and ordered them to produce an Oscar movie as though their lives depended on it, the film would share much of Stronger’s DNA. David Gordon Green’s biopic about a Boston Marathon bombing survivor packs the elements that pique awards-voters’ interest; a talented A-lister known for challenging roles, a tragic event ripped from recent headlines and an uplifting tale about overcoming adversity. With an A-lister and a future A-lister in his toolkit, Green aims to tell a Stronger’s inspiring story without relying on feel-good movie clichés.
It’s not hard to see that Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a nice guy. We get that impression early on when Jeff causes a mini-disaster at work and his manager lets him skip out to catch a Red Sox game. Jeff is the type of friendly, charming, good-looking man you would love to have a beer with but he’s not the guy you want marrying into your family either. He’s in his late twenties and he’s a professional chicken roaster at Costco, doesn’t always show up when needed, and spends nights getting drunk with his mother Patty (Miranda Richardson), who he also lives with.
Jeff has an on-again/off-again romance going on with Erin (Tatiana Maslany) and at the start of the film, it’s currently off. Jeff decides on making a sweeping romantic gesture to Erin by showing up at the Boston Marathon’s finish line and cheering her on. Tragedy strikes on the day of the marathon and Jeff is at ground zero of a terrorist bombing. Jeff catches a look at one of the bombers before shrapnel from the blast tears through the lower half of his body. Jeff wakes up and discovers his legs were amputated from above the knee but his first impulse is to offer authorities a witness statement. His selfless act makes him a national hero and the focal point of the Boston Strong movement. The rest of the film follows Jeff’s struggle to get back to normal while coming to terms with being labeled a hero.
There are actors and then there are stars, and in Stronger, Gyllenhaal shows why he falls into the latter category. He brings a charm and magnetism to the role that most actors can’t recreate. And as an added bonus, when Gyllenhaal steps into a role he brings the years of goodwill he’s accrued throughout his career. It’s not fair, but certain A-listers have our empathy before a film’s opening credits roll. Gyllenhaal sells every ounce of Jeff’s pain and anguish but on some level, we feel for the character slightly more because it’s Jake Gyllenhaal.
Make no mistake, Gyllenhaal and Maslany come into this film on fire. They both turn in what you call “showy” performances. The material offers them a wide range of emotions to play with and they explore the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. They’re the type of performances that make film snobs turn up their noses while everyone else points and says, “That right there is some mighty fine acting.” One reason why is the cliché about pretty actors downplaying their looks to win awards. In Stronger, these two beautiful human beings refuse to glamour it up (the true gauge of an actor’s dedication to their craft) and during close-ups, we see every pore, blemish, and wrinkle. And just because Stronger serves up Oscar-ready material on a silver platter doesn’t mean these performances aren’t praiseworthy.
Both Gyllenhaal and Maslany are so good they make it look easy. Maslany fans have championed her uncanny skills for years and now Stronger is her big screen coming out party. She plays Erin as tough, loving, and vulnerable and she distinguishes herself as a fleshed-out character, and not, as is so often the case in biopics, a one-dimensional supporting character. Most impressive is how Maslany holds her own against Gyllenhaal; Erin never feels like she’s there to play second fiddle to her man.
I would like to take a moment to discuss Miranda Richardson’s turn as Jeff’s mother Patty. Every time Patty pops up on screen is a reason to celebrate. What she lacks in grace she makes up with in charm and it’s hard not love the character even as she bulldozes whoever stands in her path. She’s an unremarkable woman who has lived an unremarkable life and the spotlight shining on her son is as close as she’ll ever come to success. She’s brash and domineering but her heart is in the right place. Seeing the push and pull of Patty weighing her own wants and needs against her son’s is one of the films central tensions. Side note: watching Patty work a party with an oven mitt on one hand and a smoke in the other is one of the five best things I’ve seen in a film all year
Speaking of standout moments, there’s one scene that stayed with me since watching the film. It takes place as doctors change Jeff’s bandages for the first time and the camera locks onto his face as his lower half remains in the frame but out of focus. The bandages coming off represent the intersection between Jeff’s physical and emotional trauma and it’s hard not to wince every time he screams out in agony. And when Jeff reaches the point where he can’t take any more pain, Erin’s face comes into the frame, locks eyes with him, and makes him stronger. It’s the type of powerful moment that only visual storytelling can achieve and one of my favorite movie moments of the year. It’s in tender instances like this where Green imposes his creative will and makes Stronger strike with more emotional impact than a by-the-numbers tear-jerker.
Going in, we already know Stronger’s happy ending but the film reminds us why we say, “It’s the journey and not the destination.” Even as the plot takes us to predictable places, Green’s characters show enough warmth, depth, and texture to keep the story feeling fresh and engaging. Add in Gyllenhaal and Maslany’s stellar lead performances and Stronger has the tools to turn all but the most jaded into blubbering wrecks.