On 15 April 2013, two terrorists detonated bombs at the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring hundreds. Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), waiting at the finish line for his girlfriend (Tatiana Maslany), lost both his legs yet also identified the culprits.
David Gordon Green’s Stronger is one half of a nuanced, intimate depiction of public and personal trauma where easy answers are in short supply, recovery painful, and public heroes are private wrecks. The other half of Green’s latest is a far more formulaic affair, an ‘inspiring’ fable about triumphing over adversity and finding the strength to…you know the rest.
Gyllenhaal is a perfect fit for the blue collar Jeff, a man-child who is high on charm but short on reliability. Gyllenhaal layers Jeff’s natural bar-room humour with barely concealed anxiety – crucially, the incident doesn’t magically transform Jeff’s personality. His first reaction on learning that his legs have been amputated is to crack a Forrest Gump Lieutenant Dan joke, but when the world gets too much for him he’d rather get drunk with his brothers at the bar than pick up Erin on time. It’s clear these are old patterns of behaviour he’s fallen into, using his overbearing mother (a brassy Miranda Richardson) as an excuse for emotional selfishness.
Bearing the weight of that selfishness is Erin. Gyllenhaal’s performance will inevitably be the one tipped for an oscar, but it’s Maslany who does much of the emotional heavy lifting. As a girlfriend, she’s emotionally isolated and as a carer she’s semi-invisible, overshadowed by Jeff’s family as they crow about Jeff’s next appearance on TV, oblivious to his anxiety about becoming a public figure.
Less well-served by the screenplay is Miranda Richardson, whose Patty Bauman is an off-the-shelf mother-in-law, controlling of Jeff and in competition with Erin. We’re granted precious little insight into her struggle as a mother dealing with seeing her son’s life and her role as his mother transformed, lost beneath a brassy working class stereotype. Stronger is at it best in the small, intimate scenes with Jeff and Erin. Jeff having his dressings changed for the first time, in extreme close up, is tenderly painful, and cleaning Jeff up after a drunken bathroom accident drives home the thankless, unnoticed caring that Erin is doing round the clock.
It’s a shame, then, that the film’s final act buries that intimacy under layers of cloying sentimentality, in which Jeff learns to get over his public anxiety, throws a pitch for the Red Sox and shakes the hand of a fan who has learned that “the terrorists will never win”. What keeps Green’s film just about on the right side of rote is a trio of solid performances, a sensitive, fair portrayal of Jeff’s relationship with Erin with some standout scenes between the two, and a focus on the personal over the political.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell