Stronger (2017) (Review)

Stronger is the second of two films to be released this year that centres around the Boston Marathon Bombings of 2013; Peter Berg's Patriots Day focused on the bombing and the subsequent manhunt for the culprits, a striking look at the investigation and a community rising in defiance; David Gordon Green's Stronger on the other hand takes a far quieter, more intimate approach. It explores the story of Jeff Bauman, who had one of the bombs explode at his feet, which resulted in an amputation that would change his life forever.

As Jeff (Jake Gyllenhaal) waits for his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany), at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, his world crumbles when a planted bomb exploded at his feet. Despite two leg amputation, he helps investigators catch those responsible with pertinent information - but despite the terrorists' death, his fight for recovery is only just beginning, having to adapt to the situation and help a community heal. Miranda Richardson stars as Jeff's mother while Clancy Brown plays his father.

Stronger is an intimate rumination on journey and recovery, a glance at a schismatic event on a personal level with award-worthy performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany. Having both already proven that they are among the greatest artists working in Hollywood today (Gyllenhaal through his various acclaimed feature-lengths including Nocturnal Animals, Prisoners and Brokeback Mountain, and Maslany throughout her Emmy-winning and multi-faceted work on BBC America's Orphan Black), they deliver two of the finest performances of the year.

Gyllenhaal balances what could have been a flashy, technology-enhanced performance by completely absorbing himself into the role, with utterly tremendous effect. He becomes Bauman with such delicacy and detail, poignantly exploring his physicality and mentality during his troubling times, while rarely shying away from his flaws. While the film does turn him into a Stars-And-Stripes hero of sorts, it considers his reluctancy in becoming a figure of the Boston Strong movement profoundly, all thanks to Gyllnehaal's well-rendered, surprisingly subtle performance. He truly is one of Hollywood's greatest: let's get him a Best Actor nomination, Hollywood.

Maslany, an absolute favourite of mine (my adoration for the clone show with which she broke out with knows no bounds), makes the small-to-big screen transition with a rich role packed with emotion and poise. She may not appear on screen as much as Gyllenhaal does, operating more in a supporting capacity than expected, but she makes just as strong an impact. Contending not only with Jeff's disability but dealing with her own emotions, the layered and complex character is so powerfully enlivened by Maslany's Erin and she becomes a sturdy anchor for the audience to connect with, encouraged by such a generous performance. She's certainly in Jeff's shadow but her character arc is just as important and so excellently realised. Let's get her a Best (Supporting) Actress nomination, Hollywood. She's one of your greatest.

Providing these talented actors with the potential to go far is John Pollono, whose strong screenplay is adapted from Bauman and Bret Witter's novel, Stronger. Employing surprisingly few cliches and instead rooted in fact, Pollono earns every tear shed by his audience. What could have been sentimental is instead potent and pragmatic; where it could have taken the easy way out, it spends time ensuring the characters are complex and their behaviours are believable, shying away from the Hollywood biopic tropes and dramatisations. Immensely satisfying in its innermost reflection on the events and its admirable ability to defy cynical expectations, Stronger's adapted screenplay is a minor triumph. You can see what attracted such a high-calibre cast.

David Gordon Green allows for a great deal of breathing space in this film. The camera often lingers for prolonged periods of time and, in the wrong hands, may result in an overdrawn piece; but Green allows these extra few, quiet, seconds to truly count, speaking volumes in their powerful ability to view these characters as humanly and realistically as possible. When Jeff lies naked, almost lifelessly, under the running shower, we gain a stronger understanding of his fragile mindset than can be offered in words; as Erin's bottom lip quivers as she watches the bomb explode, we can see the thoughts racing through her mind; when they spend a moment away from it all on a rooftop, him resting on her, their relationship becomes even clearer - one of nurture and compassion.

It's Green's confidence to allow these moments to play out, where so much of the film's power lies, that makes him the perfect fit for this film. The direction is strong if uncomplicated, with tight pacing and speed. As mentioned, while it could be considered slow, there's more than enough substance - particularly in the smaller moments - to justify the 119 minute runtime. He places such focus on Jeff and the relationships around him so that we feel truly inhabit his world; we are with him for every step of his journey. Stronger's emotion is enhanced further by Michael Brook's soul-stirring score. Gentle but moving, it is brimming with poignancy, powerfully engaging and effective.

After an hour and a half of delicate consideration and growing tension between Jeff and Erin, their frustrations and anger explode as they finally reach a breaking point in their relationship. Captured in the most heart-wrenching, devastating scene of the year, Gyllenhaal and Maslany provide what can only be described as a sheer masterclass in their craft, the truest testament of their talent. Emotionally-charged and throughly earned, the impact of the life-shattering event is most hard-hitting here and, as the film has provided these scenes so sparingly, it is so sharply felt. You'll be hard pressed to watch the scene fade through tearless eyes and Stronger earns each and every drop. Heartwarming and heartbreaking in equal measures, Stronger bears the weight of its fact-based story and quietly, powerfully and profoundly leaves its mark.


Summary: Profound, powerful and touching, Stronger is a triumph, all the more effective for its quiet, personal exploration of journey and recovery. The intimate focus on a wider, life-shattering event is refreshing, and elevated to extraordinary heights by Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany, who deliver two of the year's finest performances.