Damn, is it award bait season already? I thought I’d have at least another few weeks before we got into the seriously self-important schlock that will make up the bulk of my reviewing slate for the remainder of the year. Well, at least I can comfort myself with the fact that this is one of the least objectionable films likely to come from the 2017 Oscar push, thanks in large part to a solid performance from Jake Gyllenhaal and an … interesting change of course for director David Gordon Green.
Stronger is the based-on-a-true-story biopic of Jeff Bauman, a man whose legs were both amputated above the knee following the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. Somewhat unsurprisingly, this is the second mainstream release to come out of that particular tragedy, following just a little less than a year after the Mark Wahlberg vehicle Patriots Day. I can say pretty definitively that the Boston Strong phenomenon is batting .500 in the movie department, as Patriots Day was utter dreck and Stronger is actually good. Whereas the earlier film stumbled into the pitfall of fragmenting its narrative in too many directions (and still improbably finding Marky Mark at the center of every storyline), Stronger benefits from a more myopic focus on a very personal struggle. This proves to be a prudent strategy, in that Green is able to personalize a massive tragedy in a way that supersedes the barely contained anarchy of the overstuffed sausage that Peter Berg quick-turned for awards consideration last winter.
Comparisons aside, Stronger has more going for it than just its ability to be better than the worst film about a given subject. Gyllenhaal’s performance is dynamic and nuanced, presenting Bauman as a flawed human being rather than a heroic caricature. Tatiana Maslany imparts a similar level of understated pathos to her turn as Erin Hurley, Bauman’s long-suffering girlfriend-turned-caregiver. The supporting cast is solid, but Green succeeds in presenting his central relationship in believable terms that supersede the film’s distinct potential for self-aggrandizement.
Green’s direction is at its best in the film’s few comedic scenes — an episode of drunken driving with one of Bauman’s buddies working the pedals for him is a particular standout — but his grasp of the smaller, more emotive scenes displays a range he doesn’t often get to explore. Green has dipped toes in such waters with films like Joe and All the Real Girls, but his ambitions here seem to be grander. At times his style can come across as heavy-handed, but it’s refreshing to know that the man responsible for so much of Eastbound and Down can still crank out a thoughtful, well-paced drama when necessary.
Stronger may or may not prove to be a serious contender for any of this year’s major awards, but not for lack of trying. At worst, it’s a passably compelling melodrama told on a human scale. At best, it’s a cogent reminder that “Boston Strong” was not about a place, but about people. Green’s film falters in places, but when it comes to films humanizing nigh-incomprehensible tragedies, they don’t get much stronger than Stronger. Rated R for language throughout, some graphic injury images, and brief sexuality/nudity. Now Playing at Carolina Cinemark.