Review by David Baldwin for Mr. Will Wong
On April 15, 2013, two homemade bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Several hundred people were injured, and multiple people lost their limbs. Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) was one of those people – and Stronger tells his story and how he became a symbol of hope for the people of Boston.
In the wake of the Mark Wahlberg-starring Patriot’s Day, I was curious what new insight Director David Gordon Green could bring to the second Film of the year about the bombing. While the scenes before, during and after the Marathon feel all too familiar, I was surprised to see the emphasis John Pollono’s Script placed on what happens after Bauman comes home. Some of the situations depicted are rather funny, while others are downright devastating. But the overarching story feels very paint-by-numbers in its simplicity. Worse, it choreographs the inspirational, crowd-pleasing moments we have all seen before almost too perfectly.
Where Stronger falters in its storyline, it is spectacular in the way its shots are composed. Green hones in on his cast at their most vulnerable, squeezing and coaxing raw emotion out of every person on-screen at all times. He uses different levels of focus, never settling on one particular intimate or wide angle. One particular gritty scene shot behind Gyllenhaal as he has his bandages changed for the first time is both excruciating and fascinating to watch. Green escalates the tension in other scenes throughout the Film to great effect, but weeks after watching Stronger, I still cannot shake the power of that one specific scene.
After so many magnificent performances, it is hard to expect anything short of greatness from Gyllenhaal. With his work here as Bauman, he has delivered one of his most ferocious, diligent and physical performances yet. While his performance feels ordinary initially, it rather quickly becomes riveting and unmissable. He digs in deep, portraying Bauman as an individual with real flaws and psychological trauma – not just the martyr-like victim of circumstance other actors would have played him as. It makes Gyllenhaal’s performance feel refreshing and more human, making everything that happens all the more gut-wrenching and emotionally potent. Green shoots the Film carefully to minimise the effects needed to make Gyllenhaal an amputee – but Gyllenhaal is so real and calculating in his performance that you might never notice.
National treasure Tatiana Maslany and Oscar-nominee Miranda Richardson are the strong women in Bauman’s life, playing his girlfriend Erin and mother Patty respectively. Both actresses put in terrific work depicting the anguish and emotional toll Bauman’s newfound situation has on the people around him. The animosity between these two female characters leads to some of the funniest and most savage moments in Stronger, threatening to overshadow Gyllenhaal’s masterful performance. Richardson is particularly effective, as you genuinely feel for her despite her character being completely repugnant and unlikeable. Their presence on-screen elevates the material and cast around them, adding another layer of greatness to the Film.
The story at the heart of Stronger may be nothing groubdbreaking, but the way Green shoots the Film makes it feel extraordinary. Add in great performances from Maslany, Richardson and another Oscar-calibre turn from Gyllenhaal, and you have the first must-see Film of the fall.
eOne Films release STRONGER in theatres Friday, September 22, 2017.