Based on the true story of Jeff Bauman, who received a double amputation after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, Stronger elicits a distinct point of view: that of the spectator, the everyday guy whose life is upended following a shocking tragedy. Unlike many other films that center on similar narratives, Stronger isn’t about the police officers, first responders, bomb squad, or the FBI. It isn’t even about the bombers (for which I’m grateful because we’ve had enough of this played out in movies). Director David Gordon Green has a unique storytelling style that is intimate in its portrayal of Bauman. And even when the film’s pacing begins to stagger and everything ends by being tied up nicely, the directorial choices made give the film far more of a personal, intimate touch that elevate the film.
Criticized for never “showing up” when he’s needed, arriving late, or just slacking off in general, Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the kind of guy who shirks his responsibilities at Costco to go watch a game with his family, leaving his coworkers to clean up his mess. After seeing his ex-girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany), not long after their break-up, Jeff decides to finally show up for Erin during her charity run at the Boston Marathon. While there, two bombs go off near the finish line, taking Jeff’s lower legs. The rest of the film deals with the aftermath of his amputation and the personal toll his new life has taken on him and the re-evaluation of his relationship with Erin.
One of the film’s standout scenes is when Bauman is getting his sutures taken out for the first time. It’s simultaneously heartbreaking and painful to watch. Moreover, it’s the way in which the entire scene is shot that truly feels genuine to the hurt that the scene exudes. Hurt because of what happened and hurt from physical pain, which tends to be glossed over. Gordon Green decided to blur out the procedure and turn the focus entirely on Gyllenhaal’s reactions and Erin’s words of support and soothing presence as Bauman tries and fails to maintain his composure during the procedure. It speaks to the emotions layering the film and makes it far more personal than simply playing “catch the bad guys” like so many films are wont to do.
Jake Gyllenhaal is one of the best actors working today. A chameleon who takes on various characters, he is a very nuanced actor whose ability to take on the varying levels of complexity is wonderful to witness. While playing Bauman, Gyllenhaal relies heavily on the use of micro-expressions, his intense eyes full of the heaviness and weight of his struggles without losing the quick wit and sense of humor. His character maintains the difficulty of keeping it together and overtly relies on his girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany) to get him through it. While several aspects of this relationship play out well enough, it’s in the final third of the film that the major cracks begin to show and, for the sake of tying the film in a neat bow, Stronger goes for the easy way out and glosses over their major fight without a proper discussion or resolution.
Stronger isn’t able to maintain the balance of emotion and plot development and so it begins to fall apart in the final act. Gordon Green becomes too reliant on giving Bauman a happy ending rather then working through all of his issues. This is most prevalent in Bauman’s relationship with Erin, which becomes excessively rocky later in the film. There’s a scene which involves a huge fight between them and then immediately cuts to a new scene, leaving the audience with a feeling of unfinished business between them. It doesn’t help that their interactions in the finale provide no development for either of them. It’s a bit frustrating and far too much of an easy out given everything they’d been through together, but the film goes there anyway.
The film, even with its weaknesses, has a lot of promise. It’s especially strong in the first half. There’s a distinguished vulnerability within the storytelling and in Gyllenhaal’s performance. Maslany is equally as good, even though her character is less fully realized. She brings so much emotion to Erin and it’s easy to see when the wheels are turning in her head whenever she’s faced with drama. Stronger never leaves the comfort zone it established in the first half of the film, and so the finale doesn’t quite deliver on all fronts, but it’s a valiant effort by Gordon Green regardless.
"Stronger" never leaves the comfort zone it established in the first half of the film, and so the finale doesn't quite deliver on all fronts, but it's a valiant effort by Gordon Green regardless.