Stronger’s fantastic cinematography and tremendous performances make it one of the year’s finest films.
Stronger’s storyline focuses on how Jeff Bauman (played by Jake Gyllenhall) triumphed over the loss of his legs due to injuries sustained during the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing. Where Stronger differs from other releases which focus on the bombing is they steer away from getting into the actual details of the event (in fact that portion of the story is primarily addressed in the first ten minutes of the film). The focus of this movie is of the devastating ripple effect (both psychologically and physically) the bombing had on everyone Bauman loves. Erin Hurley (played by Tatiana Maslany) is riddled with guilt because Jeff’s presence at the race was a way to win her heart once again.
Director David Gordon Green and screenwriter John Pollono’s willingness to explore the evolution of Bauman’s and Hurley’s bond. Initially motivated by her immense guilt over Jeff’s injuries, it evolves into something that’s long-lasting. Maslany’s performance was raw and slightly unnerving. Her character gives up everything (a career as a hospital executive and her family) to move into a two bedroom apartment with Bauman (as well as his mother) and essentially become his caretaker. One of the best scenes in the film is a few months after the accident when Hurley meets up with one of her girlfriends to catch up. While her friend is fishing for details, she begins to unravel as the conversation veers towards Jeff’s rehabilitation. The therapy, Bauman’s emotional distance he keeps from confronting his demons, and his mother’s desire to make her son famous rather than get him help, have taken a toll on her. Maslany’s approach to the scene was perfect. She didn’t play it over the top but allowed each detail she shared to carry such emotional resonance until the moment was too much to handle.
Cinematographer Sean Bobbit’s shot selection enhanced the realism in this incredible true story. Many of his shots were from Bauman’s eye level or his perspective. An example of this was when Bauman’s bandages were changed in the hospital. Instead of shooting the scene directly from the hospital bed, the cameras were placed behind Gyllenhall and mounted at about eye-level. The camera caught the doctors explaining to Bauman how painful this procedure is and we see how his body begins to tense. In the left corner of the scene, we see Erin coming in to comfort him but then slowly backing away because she’s not sure what to do. As the doctors begin removing the bandages, the scene becomes unclear, and we see blurry images finish the procedure while screams of agony echo throughout the room. It’s the combination of camera shot, the angle of the shot, and blurring what we saw on the screen which gave the audience an all too real perspective.
The chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Maslany was incredible. One could easily see the amount of time each actor had to have spent preparing for their respective roles. Even though this film was anchored in one of the most tragic moments in our nation’s history, each actor understood that this story was more of an emotional journey for both Bauman and Hurley. My favorite moment was when they both confront each other about the emotional toll this has had on one another. Gyllenhaal’s character for two-thirds of the film had avoided blaming Hurley for his misfortune but completely loses it when his intent to get better is questioned. When he begins throwing blame, Maslany rightfully goes nuts letting him know all that she’s lost by following her heart. Both of them are mourning the loss of the reality they once knew and are not sure how best to move forward.
What Didn’t Work
Too much focus on his mother’s desire to make Bauman famous. While I agree that it needed to be a part of the narrative, but it kept coming up again and again. Would have liked seeing more about how her son’s injuries affected her emotionally.
Stronger has been hailed by some as the first Oscar contender to be released this “Awards Season.” This film lives up to these lofty statements and could easily result in Golden Globe nominations for both lead actors. I hope that people don’t’ hyper-focus on Gyllenhall’s performance, and Maslany’s performance receives the praise it deserves. While Jake’s performance as the man who embodied “Boston Strong” was certainly excellent, Maslany’s portrayal of Bauman’s one true love was magnificent. I can’t imagine a better film to check out this weekend at your local theater or on-demand, but that won’t be for quite a while.