There’s no delicate way to say this, so I’ll just spit it out. I spent the first 10 minutes of Stronger, David Gordon Green’s eventually potent drama of trauma and recovery, trying to work out whether star Jake Gyllenhaal was intending to suggest that the real-life Bostonian at the story’s center has an intellectual disability. Look at Gyllenhaal grinning beatifically in the stockroom of a Costco, his hair a Muppety tangle, as his Jeff Bauman pleads with coworkers to clean up a mess he’s made so that he can leave and watch the ballgame: “The Sox lost two in a row because a’ me,” he insists. “I wasn’t in my special seat with my special beer.” The coworkers give in, like you probably would, too — this has the whiff of Make-A-Wish Foundation stuff.
Soon, he’s at a neighborhood bar, beaming at his pals and his family, telling them that, no, they can’t say “faggot” anymore, because even his boss at the store is “a gay.” Everyone razzes him, but gently, like they’re all used to treating him with kid gloves. Then a girl he knows walks in, and he stares at her like Sean Penn's character in I Am Sam staring at his daughter, like nobody’s ever loved more purely. Just moments later, when this Bauman hear ye, hear ye’s everyone into listening to an impromptu speech in which he solicits donations for that young woman’s run in the upcoming marathon, I suddenly understood: He’s meant to be just an everyday neighborhood charmer. It’s just that Hollywood can’t make working-class Boston guys into anything more than cartoons.
Director Green’s starkly naturalistic milieu is at odds, at first, with Gyllenhaal’s capital-P Performance. That makes for an inauspicious start to what turns out to be a somewhat challenging, dead serious film, a movie that snaps to life once lives get shattered. Bauman lost both legs in the bombing at 2013’s Boston Marathon, an event that, as Stronger has it, he attended to cheer for (and win back) that girl from the bar, Erin (Tatiana Maslany), his on-and-off girlfriend. The unthinkable occurs in a nicely downplayed scene, the explosion presented as it might have been if you were there, terror booming from nowhere onto Boylston Street, splitting open the world.
Gyllenhaal has little success at showing us what Bauman might have been like before, on an ordinary day, but he’s put clear effort into understanding suffering and survival. Once in intensive care, his Bauman becomes urgently compelling, and not just because he announces that he got a good look at the bomber.
Green has made an endearingly curious series of movies — George Washington, Pineapple Express, Prince Avalanche, Our Brand Is Crisis — whose only through line is a refusal to do what you would expect. Here, he strips his first inspirational weepie of sentiment and sensation, and in the hospital scenes we mostly observe Gyllenhaal’s Bauman, sometimes in aching long takes, trying to hold it together as nurses adjust his intubation or as a doctor changes the gauze on his stumps.
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A lack of sentiment doesn’t mean a lack of feeling, of course: The gauze scene, shot from the side of Gyllenhaal’s face but looking down at what’s left of Bauman’s legs, plays out movingly, slowly, as Bauman fights off his screams. Green and his star suggest without gore the experience of real pain, but the film doesn’t revel in it. Just when Bauman — and maybe audiences — can’t take anymore, a new face edges into the frame, filling a void. It’s Erin, the erstwhile girlfriend, talking him through it.
Gyllenhaal and Maslany will share several tense, troubling scenes over the film’s two hours, as Erin moves in with Bauman and his hard-drinking mother and tries to help manage a PTSD that none of them understand. Green cramps them into tiny cars and apartment bedrooms and bathrooms, their lives cluttered to the point of danger. Helping heave a drunk Bauman onto his bed, Erin cracks his head on a stray guitar. Bauman vows he will walk again, but starts drinking too much, standing her up, getting into bar fights and skipping his physical therapy sessions.
Adding to the pressure: Boston itself seems to be counting on his recovery. A photo of Bauman at the crime scene ran on the cover of the Herald, and he comes to represent, in the press, the very idea of “Boston Strong.” Much of the film finds him terrified that he’s going to let Erin and his hometown down. Maslany and Gyllenhaal’s characters grind through a cycle: breakups (excruciating), makeups (tender and touching) and clashes with Bauman’s touchily provincial family (uneven). It all comes to a head in a ferocious argument with Erin in her car, a tears-and-spittle showcase as wrenching as anything in Manchester by the Sea, a film Stronger occasionally suggests in its painful power. Doesn’t it seem, these days, as if the studios attempt only to make two kinds of movies — the silliest or the most wrenching ever? Stronger dares to go dark. Drunk and despondent, Bauman lashes out, with a strained smile, at strangers who tell him he’s proof that the terrorists haven’t won. “From where I’m sittin’ they at least got on the fuckin’ scoreboard,” he snaps. (The script, by John Pollono, is based on a memoir Bauman wrote with Bret Witter.)
The leads are excellent in these scenes, and the film stirred tears from me more than once. But the actors playing Bauman’s family seem directed to be as clamorous as possible, their boozy bonhomie too exaggerated to be convincing. Rather than inhabiting their characters, the cast seems tasked with making points about them. Boston-life touchstones, like Utz potato chips and spirited fuck yous, get dutifully worked in, but I refuse to believe that any of these guys actually drink Michelob Ultra. Still, Green often exhibits rare acuity with his scenecraft, finding fresh but unflashy approaches to framing a shot and the movement within it, at his best cueing with some subtlety the emotions that grip his characters. En route to an upbeat ending, Bauman suffers harrowing flashbacks when wheeled onto the ice to wave a flag for the Bruins at a playoff game; despite the arena of chanting Bostonians, the scene is unsettlingly intimate, still claustrophobic, the man alone even with Erin at his side. It’s hard to reconcile the power of this moment with Stronger’s clownish first scenes or its occasional bungled sequence of Bauman’s fractious extended family, which veer into sneering caricature. It’s almost as if, in their fascination with trauma, the filmmakers have forgotten entirely what everyday life looks like.