Gyllenhaal’s Oscar prospects grow ‘Stronger’
Review — There is nothing Hollywood loves more than a by-the-numbers biopic. In fact, this tragic love has resulted in an onslaught of such films since the turn of the century, which has led to triumphs, such as Tom Hooper’s “The King’s Speech,” but also to mediocre, formulaic pictures disguised as prestige cinema, like “The Imitation Game.” David Gordon-Green’s “Stronger,” encompasses the recovery of Boston bombing survivor Jeff Bauman, who became a reluctant hero in the aftermath of the tragedy. It is neither masterful nor mediocre, and is most certainly not formulaic. It is, simply, a true story told well and told differently than its biopic brethren.
What are the strengths of “Stronger”? Well, for one thing, it has Jake Gyllenhaal, a chameleon of an actor, starring in the lead role; he simply disappears into every character he portrays. The role of Bauman, a man who lost both his legs in the 2013 bombing, is no exception. Gyllenhaal takes on the physical challenge of this role without falling into the “please-give-me-an-Oscar” trap (when an actor exaggeratedly plays a disabled person for awards attention) that Eddie Redmayne so fawningly succumbed to in his Academy Award-winning portrayal of Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.” Gyllenhaal’s decision as a performer to focus on his character, and not his character’s disabilities, is what gives the film its sturdy backbone.
But what is even more interesting about the performance — and this may very well be more a testament to Gordon-Green’s direction than to Gyllenhaal’s work — is that the film doesn’t exclusively depict Bauman as a survivor; he is very much a victim. All too often we, as viewers, are expected to identify a film’s protagonist as perfectly brave, and thus fail to hold main characters accountable for their negative actions. “Stronger” unabashedly shows Bauman, post-amputation, in various states of naked imperfection (at times, quite literally), such as reckless drunkenness, lateness and ambivalence that are meant to anger the audience. In these moments, we are not asked to sympathize with Gyllenhaal’s character, who arguably should be sympathized with at all times. This is an incredibly bold risk that pays off mightily, an accomplishment that is no doubt the result of Gyllenhaal’s unmatched ability to execute truly human performances.
While on the topic of great performances, “Stronger” also features British actress Tatiana Maslany (an Emmy winner for her under-the-radar BBC sleeper hit “Orphan Black”), who plays Erin, Bauman’s on-and-off girlfriend, who cares for him throughout the film. So much of Maslany’s performance in this film is unspoken, and her ability to convey the pain, anger, impatience and unwavering love of her character without words is absolutely stunning. When she does speak, she delivers her lines with raw, believable emotion that is confounding, because while you want to look away from her in the fit of tears she’ll provoke from you, you are still left unable to take your eyes off her. Gyllenhaal gives “Stronger” its backbone, but Maslany brings its soul.
One other notable performance comes from Miranda Richardson as Patty, Jeff’s cigarette-smoking, bottle-hooked mother. As Patty, Richardson plays on the stereotype of the Boston mom, bad-mouthed and brash, but brings her own atmosphere of sympathy that helps make an otherwise unpalatable character tolerable.
Despite the exceptional performances at the center of “Stronger,” there are some glaring problems, most notably with its pacing, which seems to be director David Gordon-Green’s Achilles heel. While he spends a majority of the film depicting Bauman as the reluctant face of the “Boston Strong” movement, he makes a jarring turn toward the end by having Bauman become suddenly engaged in the publicity he spends so much of the story criticizing, a move which is unforgivingly out-of-character, even if Gyllenhaal plays it well. Additionally, the ensemble spreads a bit too thin; characters who seem integral were introduced, only to inconsequentially drop in and out for the duration of the movie.
Bearing my deep frustration with the modern formulaic biopic in mind, I forgive “Stronger” for its narrative errors, simply for its portrayal of Bauman as a human rather than an infallible protagonist. However, at the end of the day, it is Maslany that makes the movie worth the price of admission; this is her show, and she is a star.