In “Stronger,” powerful human stories after the Boston Marathon bombing and an excellent performance by Jake Gyllenhaal.
Before we move on to Stronger, an example of courage and terrific film making, a note on yet another cruel mistake by Jennifer Lawrence.
I generally shy away from negative reviews; I prefer recommending the good ones. mother! by Darren Aranofsky deserves an exception to the rule. (Like everything about this W.T.F. film, even the title is annoying.) Critics generally like mother!, gushing about “allegories,” Aranofsky and Lawrence explaining that the horrific story is really about “climate change, and humanity’s role in environmental destruction.”
Anyway, Americans know a terrible movie when they see it. Indeed, they refuse to see a newborn baby being ripped from a mother’s arms to be killed and eaten by a crowd, allegory or not. The $30 million budget might never be recouped — its opening weekend was a disaster as epic as the film itself.
While the century is young yet, it may not be too soon to declare the idiotic & gruesome mother! the worst movie of the century #shortreview
— Van Hoogstraten (@dvhoogstraten) September 18, 2017
With that out of the way, on to Jake Gyllenhaal. He, too, makes mistakes. The lame Netflix original Okja was just as pretentious and bad as mother! Gyllenhaal was embarrassing to watch. But Jennifer Lawrence might find comfort in Gyllenhaal’s recovery. His next role, here in Stronger, is an example of splendid acting. Next to Tatiana Maslany under the direction of David Gordon Green he carries Stronger, and it is a fine film.
While the famous Boston Marathon plays a key supporting role, the film zooms in on a young working-class guy trying to rise up from the mess he made. In this true story, his character Jeff Bauman drinks too much and never shows up on time. Seeing his mother Patty (powerful acting by Miranda Richardson) you can understand why. She is a single mom, poor, often drunk, always swearing, and not an example of reliability herself. Jeff still lives with her in their small Boston apartment while he is trying to date Erin (Maslany).
Early in the movie Erin has had it with Jeff. She has wisely broken it off. But one thing about Jeff: he is persistent. So on Marathon Monday in 2013 (Patriot’s Day in Massachusetts) he decides to cheer her on at the finish of the marathon, which Erin is running.
It’s a brilliant hinge for this story. The day he finally decides to show up, the Islamist Tsarnaev brothers set off their home-made bombs near the finish line. On the happiest place in America every third Monday in April, they killed three, maiming and injuring many others. A police officer involved in the massive man hunt for one of the perpetrators died later as well.
With clarity the director then zooms in on Gyllenhaal’s Bauman. His Jeff has lost both his legs. “Yuh f ***kin’ legs? Theyah gone, bro” — that’s how he learns, in a thick Boston accent, from his buddy about the attack. Without feel-good clichés or sentimental appeals the film follows Jeff’s very messy recovery.
Some of it is painful to watch. Jeff locks his emotions up and shuts down, almost losing the will to live. Jeff’s mother is trying to help, but it’s a losing battle. Meanwhile, Erin’s empathy is stretched thin by Jeff and his mom. Her guilt about him being there on that disastrous Monday keeps her from walking away, but the renewed love between them is being taxed heavily. And the media, aggressively reporting on his every move, does not come of well.
As a Boston marathon runner I appreciated how Gordon Green kept the focus tightly on small subplots that displayed the courage and generosity on and after that annual celebration of distance running. I liked Patriot’s Day with Mark Wahlberg, but felt conflicted about turning the memory into an action movie —albeit a good one. Stronger is the smaller and, in my view, better film about the bombing.
Gordon Green manages to tell in a new way small stories we all know. In the bloody devastation on Boylston Street, passers-by quickly helped strangers, often saving their lives. One of them was the mysterious guy in the cowboy hat, who attended to Bauman in the first crucial moments after his legs were ripped off. When Gyllenhaal’s struggling Jeff finally agrees to meet the guy, the quiet greatness of Americans is on display. These guys have both lost a lot. One saved the other’s life. They listen to each other with respect, even love. They do not judge or hug. They just sit together in their grief and it’s the most moving thing.
Cowboy hat man’s name is Carlos, a beautiful performance by Carlos Sanz. With their acting skills he, Gyllenhaal, Maslany, and Richardson pay homage to the victims and the survivors. They embody the grit of the city and the runners flocking to it every April for that magnificent marathon, the best race in the world. Gordon Green has used their talents to push aside the terrorists, as it were. He lays bare a very American story of survival and goodness in response to barbarism: a fitting repudiation, actually, of the alarmist madness that is mother!
Stronger opens nationwide Friday. It is rated R.