A Jake Gyllenhaal movie about the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing is coming out this weekend, and it’s currently within a few percentage points of a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s both wrenching and uplifting as it grapples with the idea of heroism and the expectations that come along with it. It debuted on the prestigious fall festival circuit. And hardly anyone seems to be talking about it. Welcome to the serial underestimation of director David Gordon Green, where even an accessible and critically acclaimed drama can fly under the radar.
Part of Stronger’s high marks is just that old Tomatometer math where if enough critics give a movie a pass, it has a “higher” score than something more divisive. Hardly any critics I’ve read on Stronger seem to prefer it to, say, the less universally beloved mother! Indeed, I don’t prefer it to mother! either. But given my lack of excitement when I heard that Green was prepping a movie about the Boston bombing – concurrently with Mark Wahlberg booster Peter Berg, no less, whose Patriots Day came out last Christmas – and the lack of buzz around the finished product, I was taken aback when I saw Stronger by just how damn good it is. It tells the story of Jeff Bauman, a genial Beantown fuckup who attended the marathon in an uncharacteristic show of dedication to his on-and-off girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslaney), hoping to cheer her on. The bomb went off next to him, and he lost both his legs, attaining an unsettling kind of celebrity in the process.
It’s not surprising to see that Jake Gyllenhaal performs his own intense dedication to the role; he seems to latch on to cinematic suffering and grotesquerie, as if still attempting to purge his Tobey Maguire-ish youthful moping and/or his ill-fated swashbuckling turn in Prince of Persia. No matter; he is typically committed and affecting Bauman, keying into his charm with enough precision to let Bauman get away with a lot of bad behavior, big and small (in his first scene, he begs off cleaning up a mess he made at work so he can go watch the Sox game at a bar, and no one seems to really resent him for it). Maslaney is also impressive as Erin, roping the usual suffering-girlfriend part into a heartfelt hell of frustration and guilt.
The surprise here is Green, though it shouldn’t be. Time and again he’s faced questions of “what the hell happened to David Gordon Green?” often asked in the face of work that is fully recognizable as his, even when cosmetic differences confuse less attentive viewers. No, Your Highness doesn’t have a lot in common with George Washington. But the verdant scenery, inventive creatures, and the building of a medieval fantasy epic around Danny McBride very much answer the question of what a David Gordon Green fantasy comedy would look and feel like (it may be spoofy, but it works reasonably well as an actual genre piece). Even the more-despised The Sitter has Green’s trademark affection for his characters, the evocative cinematography of Tim Orr, the sense that it has its genesis in rifling through an old VHS collection.
What-the-hell-happened also flagrantly ignores the low-key movies Green made in between The Sitter and 2015’s Our Brand is Crisis. But then, he has as many overlooked movies as acclaimed ones. One of the most striking aspects of Green’s career is the way he has worked in phases – often in unofficial trilogies. There were the three meditative Southern dramas that kicked off his career and established him as sort of a more grounded Terence Malick: George Washington, All the Real Girls, and Undertow. After Snow Angels, a wintry Pennsylvania variation on those earlier works that transcends its more traditionally melodramatic elements (it might be his best film), he settled in for his three vaguely drug-centric studio comedies: Pineapple Express, Your Highness, and The Sitter. Then three character-study indies echoing his earliest work with more commanding stars: Prince Avalanche, Joe, and Manglehorn. Now he seems to be tackling issue dramas with Our Brand is Crisis and Stronger, though he’s cutting off this particular experiment before it gets to three in order to rework and sorta-sequelize John Carpenter’s Halloween (years ago, he was attached to a Suspiria remake; maybe this portends a loose trilogy of horror pictures).
Stronger is, well, stronger than Our Brand, a noble effort that didn’t quite come off; it’s the closest I’ve come to asking my own questions about where the director of George Washington is in all of this. The new film has an inspiring story to tell, but Green does an admirable job of zeroing in – usually via expressive close-ups – on his characters’ discomfort with this very inspiration. Jeff Bauman, recovering with a little good humor, a lot of loud family members, and a ton of PTSD, immediately becomes a symbol of “Boston Strong” while expressing a quite bafflement at what the hell that’s even supposed to mean.
Green doesn’t just shoot close, like in the scenes where Jeff gets wheeled out into the center of sporting events to wave uneasily at the roaring crowds. In quieter moments, he often eschews the usual alternating-one-shot or over-the-shoulder shots that make up typical dialogue scenes, instead choosing to keep his camera on a single character’s face during a conversation, keeping their scene partners off-screen for longish stretches. He mounts a more complex version of this composition in the grueling scene where Bauman first gets has his bandages changed at the hospital. As he cringes in pain, his lower torso remains in frame, but out of focus, the camera capturing Gyllenhaal on the right side of the frame. About halfway through, Maslaney’s face enters the frame from the left; Erin has been with him the entire time. It’s an extraordinary bit of visual storytelling, moving in its clarity and immediacy.
Not everything in Stronger is so evocative, but Green’s sure hand steadies the movie, keeps it from drifting over into telefilm-land. At the same time, the material doesn’t feel tightly gripped. Green uses his talent for improvisational-seeming comic looseness in the scenes with Bauman and his buddies, drunkenly screwing around and, as the movie goes on, covering for a lot of pain. It’s a through-line unexpectedly connecting movies as diverse as All the Real Girls, Pineapple Express, and Stronger. (A drunken party scene in Our Brand is Crisis is that movie’s Greenest moment.)
When Stronger does set its sights on uplift in the late-going, the work Green does to dig into Bauman’s point of view pays off. If it gets a little teachable in its final stretch, the movie also makes a case for the value of symbolic hero – how that kind of confusing, sometimes uncomfortable status can provide opportunities to live up to a fake image. Green doesn’t revolutionize the true-life-uplift movie any more than Pineapple Express was a game-changer for stoners. But he knows how to refocus his eye across different genres. In his subtle and skillful way, he’s still making these movies his own.