For most of its run-time, Stronger is admirably the inspiration of director David Gordon Green, rather than merely the corporate product of a Jake Gyllenhaal-fronted Oscar hopeful. Which means it’s a necessarily and admirably stunted venture, one which doesn’t simply spell out or depict a narrative but one which scrapes through one, knocking into the walls of the various paths it explores, and knicking into on loose nails and shards of glass strewn through human life but generally scrubbed-clean in Hollywood narratives. Because this is Green, it also means Stronger is a story about arbitrary hang-ups, human ambivalences, wasting away in space, and foiled and failed plans rather than, say, bettering the self, achieving goals, or any kind of aspirational narratives. It’s not about getting stronger through surpassing limits, but about living with them.
It’s not great cinema, admittedly. While Green – the once wunderkind director of quasi-Malickian Southern dramas like George Washington and Undertow – has clawed his way out of hack-status in the recent years after a dip in quality circa 2008-2011, Stronger is also self-evidently an attempt to reap an award or two, rather than wile away in independent status. There are soul-selling casualties that come with awards, and by its end, Stronger most certainly does sell its soul. But for the most part, it’s far better, and admirably sketchier on the issue of its protagonist’s value structure, than it could have been.
In Jeff Bauman, and Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of Bauman, Stronger finds a distinctly Green-ian protagonist, even if the drama is a little too contrived and aspirational for a Greenian-milieu. Even the director’s much-maligned Pineapple Express, the beginning of his eventual downfall as a director, animates itself with its contrapuntal awareness of schlubby screw-ups and scruffy shut-ins attempting to “play” in the movie foisted upon. The film’s joy is that its characters are hopelessly more human, fragile, and inapt for the task of populating a movie narrative, adopting the mantle of a movie hero. Stronger, with its more unvarnished, but still mordant, aura, plays like a dramatic companion piece, a story of a desperate and under-achieving Boston working-class man who attends the Boston Marathon with a sign to root for his girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslaney), a man whose problems do not begin when he loses both of his legs in the bombing.
Bauman is transparently a man-child, an aimless and adrift figure who, tellingly, isn’t a competitor in the race but is merely there to appease his girlfriend, who he is afraid will break up with him for his incompetence. Both Gyllenhaal and Maslaney are wonderful in their roles, and neither is transparently over-selling their characters as heroes or iconographic totems. Even Gyllenhaal’s usual inability to adopt a low-key mode (as evidenced by his preference for full-bodied, physical caricatures to results both wonderful, Nightcrawler, and crazed, Okja) is put to good use. His various overblown outbursts feel less like affectations and more like a natural inability to react “naturally” to a trauma that destabilizes any of his natural life rhythms. At its best, the film even suggests the sacrifices to humanity that are attendant casualties of an aspirational impulse, suggesting that Bauman becomes little more than a waxwork’s dummy if his heroism, rather than his humanity, is flaunted in a bid to turn him into a symbol for the massacre at the expense of his unruly, even impish tendencies.
At some point, though, the film itself does succumb to this almost administrative impulse to laminate Baumann with a thin membrane of heroism that then mushrooms, malignantly, and overrides the more interesting character underneath. The burden of Oscarbait, and the pressured imperatives of the tragic event in history which loom over the film – imperatives which are, let’s face it, the reason why this film was made – clot the dramatic works entirely in the final third. Especially toward the ending, Stronger collapses under the heaviness of achieving a wider meaning, the Oscarbait equivalent of a franchise film’s craving to be toyetic and sell merchandise. The push-pull between the flawed, self-hating figures at the center of the film, much more dramatically compelling when the looming events around them, become mere accents or counter-tones to the foundational impetus for the drama, the need to elevate Bauman’s skillful overcoming.
Frankly, it’s slightly comical how the Oscarbait train arrives in Stronger right when you’re beginning to believe the film might actually, in a true act of cinematic heroism shun it entirely after a roughly 80 minute delay during which the film is shockingly conversational, anecdotal, and even genuinely raw. Toward its conclusion, Stronger, amusingly and rather stunningly, becomes reminiscent of the only good joke in the awful Naked Gun 33 1/3, where Mariel Hemingway and Elliot Gould read fictional nominees for Best Supporting Actress which include Mary Lou Retton in Fatal Affair, “One woman’s ordeal to overcome the death of her cat, set against the background of the Hindenburg disaster” and Morgan Fairchild in Final Proposal, “One courageous pioneer woman’s triumphant victory over bulimia, set during the Donner Party crossing”. They mock Hollywood’s incessant need to marry personal trauma and public tragedy in increasingly baroque ways simply to check boxes for audiences, and Stronger reminds that this perennial urge is never-ending.
Still, for the majority of the film, Green sacrifices any obvious bids toward cinematic glory by heroically holding to his instincts for deliberate but appealingly shambolic interpersonal drama. Here, silences and miscommunications hold more sway than speeches and other effective means of bridging gaps between people, all of whom share, or rather do not share, different ideas for Bauman’s eventual role in Boston’s city-wide coping-mechanism. Until the ending, that is. Hardly a commentary on the idealization wringer these films usually must thresh their characters through in order to meet with audience approval, the final act of Stronger is just a truncated submission to idealization. The film tragically and semi-ironically falls prey to the very object of its thematic scrutiny: the temptation to turn women and men like Jeff, and Erin, less into physically scarred and mentally injured humans – some injuries, incidentally, merely being exacerbated and driven into relief rather than actually inaugurated by the bombing at the marathon – and instead into pillars. Their eccentricities are tragically suppressed by their role in the circus of public expectation and scrutiny. While the film is ultimately about getting up no matter how many times you fall, the eventual stumbles in the narrative are only more tragic considering how long Stronger does truly stand tall.