Friday, September 22, 2017

Stronger: A quiet triumph

Stronger (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for frequent profanity, graphic injury images, and fleeting sexuality and nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.22.17

Some things transcend their real-world existence.

Football is a crowd-pleasing spectator sport; baseball is ... something more. Baseball inspires myth-making films such as The Natural and Field of Dreams. You simply can’t imagine football doing the same.

Jeff (Jake Gyllenhaal) takes a few tentative steps on his new prosthetic legs, much to the
overly eager delight of his helicoptering mother (Miranda Richardson, center), and the
cautious concern of his girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany).
Los Angeles and Chicago are cities. New York and Boston are ... dreamlike.

Boston’s intangible, ferociously indomitable spirit (“Boston strong!”) has much to do with the triumphant, fist-pumping exhilaration that powers Stronger, but director David Gordon Green’s fact-based drama likely will be remembered best for its quieter, intimate moments. Two will linger in my mind for a long time: one for its near-silent emotional intensity; the other for the heartbreaking wallop of an unexpectedly personal story, related by a late-entry supporting character.

Both are staged, lensed and performed impeccably; both are moments of pure cinema magic. And if the rest of Green’s film doesn’t live up to those high points, it nonetheless remains inspirational and thoroughly satisfying.

Stronger, based on Jeff Bauman’s best-selling 2014 memoir of the same title, depicts his agonizing emotional and physical struggle after losing both legs during the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. His saga captivates for all sorts of reasons; his being a survivor at times seems incidental.

Jeff’s presence at the finish line was sheer caprice; he “showed up” in an effort to win back the on-again/off-again girlfriend (Erin Hurley) who was running the race. In the blast aftermath, he likely would have died, were it not for the rapid intervention of Carlos Arredondo, a Costa Rican-born American peace activist who attended the marathon for his own deeply personal reasons.

Immediately upon regaining consciousness after surgery, still intubated and unable to speak, Jeff indicated — by writing — that he’d seen one of the bombers; his description of Tamerlan Tsarnaev helped police and FBI narrow down the suspect list.

All of which gives this film a hefty emotional center, although scripter John Pollono wisely focuses on the all-important relationship between Jeff and Erin. Everything else flows from that bond.

Jeff — as introduced — is played to lackadaisical perfection by Jake Gyllenhaal, who works his goofy smile far more successfully than the guy deserves. He’s a slacker who still lives with his mother, Patty (Miranda Richardson), an alcoholic clearly unwilling to part with her beloved son. Despite a tendency to let people down, Jeff has maintained steady employment in the deli department at the local CostCo; he’s obviously a trial to boss Kevin (Danny McCarthy), who nonetheless likes the guy.

Who wouldn’t? Jeff’s failings aside, he’s eminently likable. He’s also part of a boisterous, frequently profane working-class family that includes his father and Patty’s ex-husband, Big Jeff (Clancy Brown); his Uncle Bob and Aunt Jen (Lenny Clarke and Patty O’Neil); and longtime buddies Sully and Big D (Richard Lane Jr. and Nate Richman).

When gathered together, they squabble, snipe and shout over each other, seemingly most comfortable when arguing at high decibel. This dynamic immediately evokes memories of Micky Ward’s similarly large and dysfunctional family, in 2010’s The Fighter. (Must be a Massachusetts thing.) We can’t imagine being part of such a brood, and yet Green and Pollono never, ever hold them up for ridicule.

They may be a neighborhood nightmare, but love and loyalty burn fiercely beneath their rowdy exteriors.

Proximity — and the ritual of watching Red Sox games at a local tavern — repeatedly throw Jeff and Erin (Tatiana Maslany) together. They’re on the outs as the film opens, Erin having tired of Jeff’s self-centered unreliability. This stings; he therefore promises to cheer her home, when she runs in the upcoming marathon.

Which he does. She’s within sight of the finish line when the bombs go off, initially unaware of Jeff’s presence. When she does find out, and realizes that she’s the reason he was there ... words cannot convey the horror. Indeed, Green and Pollono don’t try for words; they rely on Maslany, who silently carries the next several scenes with palpable intensity.

She’s a phenomenal actress, as fans of TV’s Orphan Black are well aware: able to depict a wealth of emotions via the subtle nuances of her eyes and mouth, the tilt of her head, the frozen tension of her entire body. We grieve for Erin in these early scenes: wanting to be close to Jeff, unable to go home despite knowing that she “doesn’t belong,” because she isn’t currently his girlfriend. And so much more.

But he wants her there, and the most intimately excruciating moment comes when the dressings on what’s left of Jeff’s legs must be changed. I often complain about directors who rely overmuch on tight close-ups, but Green knows the appropriate how and when.

Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt holds on Gyllenhaal and Maslany’s faces, one of Erin’s arms pulling Jeff’s head closer to hers, as the off-camera doctor (Dr. Jeffrey Kalish, the real-world Jeff’s primary surgeon) explains each step of the procedure. Gyllenhaal’s face captures Jeff’s terror and reaction to the excruciating pain; Erin gently talks him through it, Maslany exuding tender, nurturing warmth and just a soupçon of attaboy encouragement.

I defy anybody to watch this scene, without coming away changed.

What follows moves in compelling directions, Gyllenhaal persuasively conveying the confusion, apprehension and guilt that results once Jeff is thrust into the powerfully scary maelstrom of public veneration. His extended family is giddy: the celebrity, the free stuff, the best seats at sports events. Over time, this tableau becomes ... uncomfortable.

Patty, in particular, basks in the reflective glow enveloping her son, and Richardson shades this role brilliantly. On the one hand, we despise Patty’s clinging, self-centered, avaricious nature. At the same time, we can’t help pitying her; Richardson grants her a forlorn, desperate countenance. We understand that Patty never has been the center of such attention, even second-hand ... and that she can’t give it up.

But the increasingly desperate look on Gyllenhaal’s face — his haunted gaze — convey Jeff’s anxiety over whether he can live up to public expectation, or even wants to. As time passes, we sense the growing resentment over his being trotted out, time and again, like a crippled show pony ... just so (he assumes) other people can feel better about themselves.

Pollono’s script covers an impressive range of territory. The core bond between Jeff and Erin — fractured as it often is — holds our hearts; at the same time, we’re thoughtfully engaged by the relationship that springs up, often spontaneously, between The Public and the “heroes” suddenly thrust into the spotlight. Jeff doesn’t speak to this much, but Gyllenhaal makes us understand: What is the poor guy’s role, under such circumstances?

Does one become a “hero” merely by surviving? Or is it deeper than that?

The greater problem, of course, is that Jeff’s mounting anxiety soon interferes with what must remain his No. 1 job: recovery — physical and emotional — and the essential post-operative therapy. This moves the story into its tempestuous, heartbreaking third act, which in turn leads to the appearance of Arredondo (Carlos Sanz, in a deeply moving supporting performance). About which, I’ll say no more.

Mention also must be made of the sensitive work done by McCarthy, as Jeff’s genuinely concerned boss. (CostCo’s corporate leaders will love their company’s portrayal here.) Derisively dismissed, at first, by the frequently furious Big Jeff (Brown appropriately larger than life), Kevin — knowing that he’s out of place amid family grief — bravely lingers, both to register his presence, and to deliver important information.

The tech credits are excellent. Production designer Stephen H. Carter captures the raucous, disorderly atmosphere of Jeff’s working-class surroundings; Dylan Tichenor’s editing is spot-on. Michael Brook’s underscore is quietly effective, never artificially enhancing deeply emotional moments that can — and do — stand on their own.

The Boston Marathon bombing remains painfully raw, and Green doesn’t shy from re-created images guaranteed to re-open unhealed wounds. This is where the city’s spirit plays its part. We’ve already seen one engaging big-screen depiction of the overall catastrophe — winter’s Patriot’s Day — and I can’t help feeling that Hollywood’s eagerness to tell this second story derives, in great part, from the triumphant, resilient je ne said quoi that manifests as “Boston strong!” and fueled the city’s rejuvenation, after this terrorist strike.

More power to those cheering citizens.

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