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Review: Jake Gyllenhaal gets "Stronger"

by Eric Blume

Have patience watching director David Gordon Green’s film Stronger, which captures real-life Boston native Jeff Bauman (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) as he’s caught in the 2013 Marathon bombing.  After a rickety start, Green relaxes into a nice rhythm and delivers an almost extinct creature: a true adult movie drama.

The first few scenes of Stronger come on a little, ahem, strong.  They’re written to show what a great guy Bauman is (he cuts out from work so he and his lucky beer can help the Red Sox win, he stands up for his gay boss), and Green has all the actors pushing too hard.  The initial scene where we meet Bauman’s family (including mom Miranda Richardson and girlfriend Tatiana Maslany) in a bar reeks of Boston cliché.  It’s a very tricky thing, honestly capturing that lower-middle-class Beantown language and attitude, and Green overplays his hand in this and several other early scenes.  The energy is overly commercial, and the movie gets off to an uneasy start.

But once the big sequence begins, where Bauman loses his legs in the terrible terrorist attack, Green begins observing smaller details, and starts scoring...

  The segment where the doctors take off Bauman’s bandages is shot in one long take from above, as we are truly fused with Bauman’s experience:  it’s a sequence that would have been left out, or edited down, in another movie like this.  But part of the strength of the film is that we're forced to watch all the real, small increments of recovery.  Green also does a beautiful job of helping us understand how people talk above and around Bauman at all times, how they grope at him and he’s on display.  He also orchestrates scenes where characters explode against each other without easy explanation, and the arguments feel true to the way they play out in real life.

There’s a scene where Gyllenhaal rests between the legs of Maslany, leaning against her, that feels incredibly intimate and vulnerable, but then every scene involving these two actors together is magic.  Maslany gives a seemingly effortless naturalistic performance; she’s never “acting” and she finds her own arc within the limited confines of her character.  While it’s largely the supportive girlfriend role, she’s allowed an inner life and is no victim. Maslany enters every scene fresh and in the moment and she brings out a bruising tenderness in her leading man.

Gyllenhaal remains one of our finest, still-undersung actors, and his work here is exemplary.  Not much happens in Stronger, so the film really needs his star magnetism, which he’s able to combine with regular-man simplicity.  Gyllenhaal’s ability to be completely special but completely ordinary isn’t something that just happens -- he has the intelligence and instinct to know what’s required at any given moment.  It’d be wonderful to see his measured, thoughtful, complex work recognized at the Oscars this year.

Stronger falls very short of being a great movie.  Bauman’s relationship with his mother is probably the key one, but it’s not shaped:  you keep waiting for Richardson to figure, or for the film to take them deeper, and it never happens.  You’re never really clear exactly what their relationship is made of.  And there are no new ideas in the film, or even new insights into ideas we’ve seen in other movies of this type.  But at the end of the film, you’re struck with how smartly it all unfolds, and how gracefully the artists have trusted in the material.  We don’t get many films these days with regular adults dealing with regular problems, full of actors who have (mostly) good dialogue and something human and direct to play.  Green’s Stronger needs everyone’s support so we can get more good things down the line.

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Reader Comments (21)

We are e seeing this tomorrow. Will relate our
Feelings about the movie.

September 22, 2017 | Unregistered Commenternatalie

So anything outside of Gyllenhaal is unlikely? It sounds like the movie's not good enough for coattails, and the performances, though not bad, are on the level where they're not independently praise worthy enough to justify #1 votes if the movie behind them isn't BP material.

September 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Wow this trailer was terrible. Glad to hear it's better than it looked, for the terrific actors sakes

September 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterHuh

Jake is one of our finest actors. This is an absolute Oscar worthy turn.

September 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMark

I hope he wont be snubbed ala Nightcrawlers a few yrs back

September 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

I am hearing lots of good about Maslany,Where did she come from.

September 23, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

mark -- from "orphan black" ;)

September 23, 2017 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Ok,I don't watch a lot of USA TV shows,I had no idea who Ray Romano was either so quite often if I see them in a film thay are new face to me with no prior baggage or persona.

September 23, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk


September 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCraver

Mark -- Orphan Black is actually a British show! :)

Craver -- as do I!

September 23, 2017 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Miranda Richardson is totally amazing in this movie.

September 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBillyBob

Nat: The production company is Canadian, and the funding is from BBC America (a company co-owned by BBC Worldwide and AMC Networks) and Space, so that means the funding is roughly 1/2 Canadian, 1/4 American and 1/4 British. It's a Canadian show, not a British or US one.

September 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Let's just say TV is usually a no no unless it Judge Judy or Bake Off.

September 23, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I want to see it. DGG managed to get a spectacular performance from Nicolas Cage (!!!!!!!) in Joe. I didn't care for him before Joe, but now I want to see all his next movies. He's evolving into something interesting.

September 23, 2017 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

volvagia -- thanks. was not aware. i only watched the first season.

September 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I loved the movie and certainly hope Jake will not be overlooked comes award time. I did not think I would like the movie as much as I did. It was NOT the usual kind of movie in this genre.

I thought the whole movie was excellently done. I love Tatiana ( sorry, forgot her name ) did an
amazing job as well.

September 23, 2017 | Unregistered Commenternatalie

I simply love Jake Gyllenhaal, he should already have an Oscar ( for Brokeback Mountain....who actually talks about Clooney turn in Syriana ? Wrong choice, Academy ....) and at least two more nominations - Prisoners , where he is exceptional, haunted and haunting, and Nightcrawler , he is brilliant when paired with the amazing monologue style rants written for him, powering it up in a must-see and a must-talk-about film. He`s utterly reliable and always effective. it doesn`t matter if the movie is just mediocre ( Love and Other Drugs), generic ( Southpaw) or brilliant ( Zodiac) he always manages to deliver deep, layered performances that in other actor`s hand may have felt flat. ( just remember when he was Gwyneth Paltrow`s love interest in Proof ? Love this film, should have gotten Paltrow a second nod).

September 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEder Arcas

Just saw the film. It's actually pretty great. Jake is amazing and will definitely be nominated, and I hope Tatiana is as well, though that's a longer shot simply because she's not as famous. But her performance is the best supporting actress performance I've seen this year.

September 24, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph

I don't think I would ever have given Jake the win at this point, but he'd sure have quite a few nominations at this point. Impressive given how young he is really. He's definitely a very reliable actor who is just all around great.

September 24, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterhuh

I don't mind how good it is... I boycott from long ago ANY american production that uses a terrorist attack to manipulate its audience. Sorry if it bothers you, but I'm done with this kind of films, my last drop was "Zero Dark Thirty" and "American Sniper" being Oscar contenders, two fascists films with clear fascist agenda supporting summary executions and torture.

September 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJesus Alonso

Eric, great review, which makes me rethink my original resistance to this movie. I'm usually allergic to the inspirational true-life handicapped hero genre, but now I might check it out. Thanks!

September 25, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

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