Patriots Day took the macro view of the devastating 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, concentrating on the manhunt for the perpetrators and the city’s resilience in the face of violent terrorism.
Stronger takes an entirely different approach to the same event, focusing on a single victim of the explosions, and his personal struggle to stand tall in the aftermath.
Jake Gyllenhaal, after tough, physical performances in Southpaw and Nightcrawler, shows a contrasting side of himself as Jeff Bauman, a deeply flawed character, weak and immature, who lost both of his legs by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Cast as a hero by the media because Boston needed a positive story to latch onto, Bauman finds he is uncomfortable in the spotlight and just as uneasy away from the adulation, as he sought the strength to live his life as an amputee.
Gyllenhaal handles the showy role, full of anger and self-pity, impressively, but just as good in a more subtle assignment is Tatiana Maslany as Erin, Jeff’s on-and-off girlfriend, who puts her family, her career and her life on hold for the thankless job of caregiver. Jeff soon resents her help and she is forced into a parental mode, particularly when she learns she has become pregnant by him and he wants nothing to do with the responsibility. Not helping matters is Jeff’s helicopter mom (Miranda Richardson), a blowsy alcoholic who smothers her son and resents Erin.
David Gordon Green is a filmmaker with a schizophrenic résumé, bouncing from delicate dramas like Snow Angels to raucous comedies like Pineapple Express to complete missteps like Your Highness. Stronger is directed with assurance, as Green demonstrates his sensitive side while managing to avoid slipping into sentimentality. You will feel for Jeff Bauman, while recognizing his childish side that keeps getting in his way.
Green’s camera is unflinching as it closes in to view the unwrapping of Jeff’s leg stubs, just as it stares as the carnage and chaos he recalls in flashback of the bombing. Care was also taken with the many medical sequences, which have a documentary texture.
Ultimately, Stronger is the tale of a fragile soul reluctantly cast as a hero, who cannot live up to the role, but slowly finds his way back to a measure of normalcy.
STRONGER. Director: David Gordon Green; Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson; Distributor: Lionsgate; Now playing in most area theaters