Blu-ray Review: Stronger (2017)

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Stronger stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Jeff Bauman, a man critically injured in the terrorist attack at the 2013 Boston Marathon. Directed in straightforward manner by the ever-eclectic David Gordon Green (adapted from Bauman’s own memoir of the same name), Stronger is worth seeing for its strong performances. Eschewing gooey ‘inspirational’ clich├ęs in favor of dry-eyed, matter-of-factness, Green draws grittily authentic work from Gyllenhaal and a strong supporting cast.

The less showy role of Jeff’s girlfriend Erin Hurley is handled with equal aplomb by Tatiana Maslany (Ophan Black). Erin and Jeff are in the midst of an ‘off’ period in their on-and-off relationship as Stronger begins. Barely able to handle his relatively untaxing job as a rotisserie chicken cooker at Costco, Jeff and his general air of irresponsibility have wearied Erin. Jeff’s also something of a mama’s boy, still living at home in his late-20s. As Erin is set to run the Boston Marathon, Jeff is determined to win back her confidence by being there to cheer her on at the finish line.

Stronger isn’t really about the bombing itself. For an exemplary exploration of that terrible event and its aftermath, see Peter Berg’s stunning (and stunningly overlooked) Patriots Day. What director Green is interested in here is the struggle of a ‘regular Joe’ in the face of overwhelming, undeserved adversity. Jeff endures a life-saving amputation of both legs and winds up suffering even more debilitating PTSD. Erin, feeling guilty about the reasons Jeff was at the scene of the crime, becomes his caretaker. She balances out the more fame-hungry impulses of Jeff’s mom Patty (Miranda Richardson), who enables Jeff’s alcoholism and tries to set up interviews with Oprah.

Who knows how accurate the characterizations are—like any such adaptation, artistic license was likely taken to some degree. What works about Stronger is that Green doesn’t make anyone a saint. These are all flawed people with messy complexities that force us to accept them at face value. If there’s anything to carp about, it’s that at nearly two hours it starts to feel a bit overlong. But it’s an extraordinary story told with wince-inducing realism. Green finds his own pace and sticks with it, typical audience expectations for a fist-pumping inspirational tale be damned.

Lionsgate’s Blu-ray edition of Stronger includes a half-hour behind-the-scenes piece, “Faith, Hope and Love: Becoming Stronger,” that includes screen time with the real Bauman. It’s a welcome companion piece to a quietly effective film.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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