[This is a re-post of my Stronger review from the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. The movie opens in theaters on September 22nd.]
What makes a hero? Is it performing superheroic feats? Doing good deeds? Being a good person to someone in need? The word “hero” gets thrown around a lot, but rarely do we stop to think what it means to the person we’re heralding as such. This is a major focus of Stronger, director David Gordon Green’s gritty, performance-driven drama about Boston marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman, who was immortalized in the media as the dizzied man being wheeled out of the area with his legs blown off, and who later helped the police identify one of the bombers from his hospital bed. But Jeff’s story merely begins with the bombing, and via a tour de force performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, Stronger tackles the fallout from Jeff’s injury and the personal toll that being acclaimed as a citywide “hero” takes on him, his family, and his on-again/off-again girlfriend.
Stronger opens by showing us Jeff the day before the bombing, where he leaves work (the local Costco) early so he can sit in his lucky seat at the bar for the Red Sox game. There his ex-girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany) walks in looking for donations for her run at the marathon, which is the following day, and Jeff—still trying to win her back—promises Erin he’ll be there at the race, cheering her on. You know what happens next, but this prologue is key to Green’s take on the movie. He’s not interested in the machinations of the terrorists or the citywide manhunt or even the city’s interest in Jeff, he’s interested in Jeff, a normal guy who suffered a massive injury and lifelong disability simply by showing up to a race.
We watch as Jeff struggles to recover with the help of Erin and his family, namely his alcoholic mother, with whom he still lives. Miranda Richardson is tremendously complex as Jeff’s mother Patty, who clashes with Erin from Day One and not-so-secretly blames her for her son’s injury. Jeff’s family welcomes him back home with open arms and gives him nothing but encouragement, somewhat basking in the glow of the national media attention that’s now been put on Bauman and his recovery. But few stop to ask or think about how Jeff feels in all of this, and Gyllenhaal brings his interior struggle to vivid life through the course of the film.
It’s been obvious for some time, but now it’s downright inarguable: Jake Gyllenhaal is one of the best actors working today, and he completely and wholly transforms into Jeff Bauman in this film with a potentially career-best performance (at the very least a close runner-up to Nightcrawler). And I don’t mean physically (although he does that too). Gyllenhaal’s work is about so much more than looking different, he feels different as he wholly inhabits this character. We feel empathy for Jake, but also pity, frustration, and anger. Gyllenhaal brings a richness to the character that makes all the difference, and he and Green know that no human is all good or all bad, as they take great strides to ensure that Jeff is a fully dimensional human being in this film, not a symbol to make people feel better.
That’s one of the main ideas that Stronger is getting at. It felt nice to say “Boston Strong” in the wake of the bombing and to look at survivors like Jeff as reminders that people made it out of that event alive, but did we stop to think about how they made it out of that event forever changed? How it must feel to be put up on a pedestal for simply surviving a horrific event, with an inability to walk as a permanent reminder of that trauma? That’s essentially what Stronger explores, and while it may not be pretty to watch, it’s a stark reminder of reality versus the way we’d like to think the world operates.
Green has shown tremendous diversity in his career thus far, ranging from projects like Pineapple Express to Prince Avalanche to Your Highness, but he proves to be a terrific fit for Stronger, bringing his focus on performance and character to challenging material with impressive results. There’s one jaw-dropping shot in particular towards the beginning of the movie that really shows the uniqueness with which Green is approaching the story, and how that fully supports the characters.
Opposite Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany also delivers a fantastic and nuanced performance as a woman who struggles with how to react to and handle Jeff’s injury. Her running the marathon was the reason he was there in the first place, so does she owe him her life? Does he feel she’s responsible in some way? Maslany has obviously shown a huge ability in Orphan Black playing multiple characters, but it’s great to see her exude her talents as a single, complicated yet very relatable person.
Stronger isn’t all grit and grime, and indeed its spirit is ultimately an uplifting one, but it doesn’t shy away from the darker realities of life, and it’s important to acknowledge complexity rather than settle for a wristband and a catchphrase that make you feel good. Life isn’t all one thing. It’s tough at times, pleasant at others. Stronger is about the hard work it takes to get through the rough times, and hopefully coming out, well, stronger on the other end.