This film makes an interesting companion piece to Patriots Day, in that both movies cover the same event – the bombing of the 2013 Boston Marathon. But where Peter Berg’s offering concentrates on the hunt for the perpetrators of the crime, Stonger opts to focus on one of the bombing’s victims: twenty six year old Jeff Bauman, who had the misfortune to be standing too close to the rucksack that held one of the homemade explosive devices.
When we first encounter him, just days before the bombing, Jeff (Jake Gyllenhaal) has recently split from his girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany) and is doing everything he can to encourage her to come back to him. When he hears that she is planning to run the Boston Marathon, he dutifully turns up on the day carrying a homemade placard to show his support… and moments later, loses both his legs in the bomb blast. When Erin spots his blood-spattered face on a TV report, she hurries to the hospital, where Jeff’s dysfunctional family, headed by his mother, Patty (an almost unrecognisable Miranda Richardson) are already gathered, waiting for him to come back to consciousness. Erin finds herself inexorably drawn into being his carer/companion, even moving into the little apartment that he shares with his mother – but as his long, slow recovery begins, it’s apparent that Jeff still has a lot of issues to come to terms with; and it doesn’t help that the people of Boston constantly want to celebrate him as a homegrown hero…
David Gordon Green’s film expertly walks a perilous tightrope. This powerfully affecting story could so easily have descended into pure corn, but the fact that it doesn’t is only one of its many strengths. The script (by John Pollono, based on Jeff Bauman’s book), refuses to turn its lead character into the hero figure that the people of Boston so evidently want him to be. There’s no rose-tinted glasses here. Jeff is presented as a feckless, often selfish individual, with a self-destructive personality – and a similar ‘warts-and-all’ approach is taken with the various family members who weigh in to lend their support with all the finesse of a herd of stampeding elephants.
Gyllenhall’s performance is superbly affecting (here’s yet another movie which I viewed mostly through a fog of cascading tears), while anyone who has watched her assay multiple roles in Orphan Black will know what to expect from the very talented Maslany. Miranda Richardson’s turn as the boozy, hapless Patty is also beautifully judged. Suffice to say that the various mutterings about the film’s Oscar potential may not be entirely misplaced. But who knows? Oscar can be a notoriously fickle beast.
Stronger is ultimately a film about the process of healing. I loved its honesty and passion and though it keeps its most shocking images for later on in the proceedings, when they do arrive, in a series of brilliantly edited flashbacks, it doesn’t hold back.