Review: Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Stronger’ Loses His Legs in the Boston Bombing
“Stronger,” the new movie directed by David Gordon Green, harks back to his work in the first decade of this century. His “All the Real Girls” (2003) and “Snow Angels” (2007) brought acute, cleareyed, compassionate consideration to trauma and tragedy as they affect intimate relationships. Unlike those pictures, though, “Stronger” carries a separate weight. It’s also about an actual galvanic event in recent American history.
“Stronger” is the story of Jeff Bauman, a resident of Chelmsford, Mass., who lost both his legs above the knee in the terrorist bombings of the Boston Marathon in 2013.
The movie, based on Mr. Bauman’s autobiography, begins with a depiction of him as a relatively amiable screw-up. Played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who’s almost a decade older than Mr. Bauman was at the time of the events shown, the character is nevertheless a convincing man-child. After making a grisly mess of a chicken-roasting task at the Costco where he works, Jeff repairs to his local, where he drinks and curses and makes moon-eyes at his ex-girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany), a rather more directed soul who’s popped in to collect donations for her marathon run. Seizing on a notion to win her back, Jeff hand-letters a sign to brandish near the race’s finish line. He sees one of the bombers moments before the explosion that costs him his legs.
For Mr. Bauman and his milieu, Mr. Green forgoes the standard Hollywood clichés about boisterous, hard-drinking, “politically incorrect” working-class Bostonians in favor of characters who are far, far, far more boisterous, hard-drinking and “politically incorrect.” It’s kind of terrifying. For instance, Jeff’s mother, Patty, in an astounding turn by Miranda Richardson, is a slovenly, resentful, egocentric drunk who frequently prioritizes her hangovers over Jeff’s physical rehabilitation appointments. For all that, the movie itself never judges its people.
“Stronger” takes more artistic risks than any other American-made “inspired by true events” picture I can recall. The emotions and situations depicted, as Jeff struggles with PTSD, his immobility, his relationship with Erin and his hometown-hero status (which he believes to be completely unearned), are raw, sometimes desperate. A scene late in the film in which Jeff begs not to be abandoned is played at such a high pitch that it flirts with, then transcends, bathos.
But as it approaches the two-hour mark, the movie seems to wake to the fact that it has to live up to its title. Then “Stronger” rushes through what screenwriting gurus call the “redemptive arc,” with little concern for just how its lead character makes the life changes that enable him to face his responsibilities. And in that respect, it brings the viewer up short.