One of the films I caught last week at the Toronto International Film Festival was Oscar-nominated Jake Gyllenhaal’s new film. It seems like every year there is a Gyllenhaal vehicle, that’s supposed to put him back in trophy contention. He might get his second nod for “Stronger,” but compared to his overlooked master class performances in “Prisoners” or “Nightcrawler,” it doesn’t come close to his best work. “Stronger” is the second Boston Marathon bombing film in just two years. “It changed my life,” Gyllenhaal explained to me when I sat down with him for interviews in Toronto. He sat beside survivor Jeff Bauman who he portrays in the film and both men displayed honest admiration for each other. David Gordon Green’s film focuses much more on the individual, the romance, than the event or aftermath. Much like “The Fighter,” the eccentric stereotypical Boston family plays a large part in Gyllenhaal’s character and the decisions he faces. Green enters very different territory than the oddball indie flicks he usually peddles.
Jeff Bauman (Gyllenhaal) and Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany) were an off-and-on-again couple that happened to be in an off period when Jeff, on a rare occasion of showing up for anything, came to support her running the 2013 Boston Marathon. He held and waved a handmade sign that Erin would never get to see. Two explosions were set off, severing the bottom portions of his leg, resulting in eventual amputation above the knees. “You don’t owe me anything,” Jeff said, finally waking up after intensive surgery and recovery. Erin dedicates herself to Jeff, facing physical and psychological recovery. The media attention, labeling him a hero, creates a scenario he isn’t prepared for, nor feels he deserves. However, it was Jeff’s recollection of the bombers that gave the FBI information that led to their takedown.
I’m not sure whether Miranda Richardson (“Churchill,” “Harry Potter”) gives a good performance or just tried to compete with what Melissa Leo did in “The Fighter.” Her role as the alcoholic, overprotective, ignorant mother both distracts from Gyllenhaal in many scenes, while also giving him a lot to work with. Gyllenhaal is playing a guy who manages to stay positive during the worst times in his life, but finally is overrun with emotion and guilt as he tries to stifle the pain. Many times, throughout the film, it silently asks the viewer what you might do in Jeff’s or Erin’s situation. The emotional outburst scenes are great for award clips, but it’s the quieter moments, the physical moments, that display more strength in his performance. The way Green and Gyllenhaal play the scene where the doctors first change his bandages is quite brilliant. One of many tight close-up shots of Gyllenhaal’s face with the painful activity blurred in the background.
“I wish you were leaning on me,” Jeff said in a scene where he and his girlfriend, Erin, are watching the sky, as he uses her body to sit up. The film takes us through his therapy with no real cinematic revelation. The script revolves around a romance that was essentially created in tragedy. There are some dark Boston humor moments, one about masturbation that doesn’t seem appropriate when it occurs in the script, nor did it garner any laughs in the screening. Another scene with Jeff at one of his lowest moments driving drunk with the help of his friends, is played for laughs and doesn’t advance the script or the narrative. What does work is how they hold the scene between Jeff and the man who saved his life until the end. It’s a near game changer for the film and a life-altering moment for Jeff.
Final thought — Works as a tragic recovery story because of Gyllenhaal’s dedicated performance, but the film wholly struggles to find new ground.