Early into my cinephilia, if you were to suggest that David Gordon Green was America’s most promising young filmmaker, I would suggest that you’re probably not as wrong as usual. Yet at this point, critical complaint about Green’s downward spiral comes across as just plain whining. He’s not the same filmmaker who made such ephemeral masterworks as George Washington and All the Real Girls. Nor is he the same filmmaker to produce low-hanging fruit comedies like Your Highness or The Sitter. No, his current trajectory aims at producing palatable and innocuous prestige pictures. His previous film, Our Brand is Crisis, intended as a Sandra Bullock vehicle to her second Academy Award, didn’t quite achieve the awards-driven recognition it strived for. Stronger, a film that meets a checklist of topical social issues anchored by a physically demanding performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, seems better positioned to garner the sort of industry approval that has eluded Green.
Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) is described as an “ordinary man” in Stronger’s press notes, though this Boston Costco worker can probably best be described as “problematic”. Jeff’s indebted to his family, a cadre of shall we say inelegant Bostonians, who are prone to debating the merits of the word “faggot” while chugging a cold one (with the boys and girls) without so much as blinking away from a Red Sox game. Classy. Jeff, shaggy-haired and reeking of the produce counter from Costco, attempts to convince his on-again-off-again girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany) that he deserves another chance – when she comes into his dive bar attempting to collect money for the Boston Marathon, he convinces everyone to pitch in. Before Erin leaves, Jeff promises that he’ll be there for her at the finish line. She remains unconvinced.
Jeff’s there on that April morning in close proximity to the bombing itself. Doctors are forced to amputate. And so it goes. What follows is an occasionally intriguing look into Jeff’s moral reckoning, where he contends with the loss of his legs and the physical and mental toll that it takes on him and those that orbit around him. The passages that sing tend to bear Green’s more ephemeral tendencies. The dressing change, for example, is a vivid visual moment, where Green captures Gyllenhaal’s grimaced agony as doctors change gauze and bandages on his out-of-focus legs. Or consider an elevator sequence punctuated by the pronounced aural pandemonium of Bruins fans, where Jeff must confront the fraudulence paradox of accepting the role of a hero to others while frequently feeling the complete opposite.
Thematically, screenwriter John Pollono thoughtfully considers Jeff coming to grips with his newfound fame, with Green’s formal aptitude complementing these concerns. However, as it’s often the case with films of this sort, there’s a tendency to simplify. And Stronger’s inability to fuss over the details, of succumbing to saccharine generalities rather than sincere specifics, leaves you with a film that operates on the most banal of sentiments. It almost indignantly rejects complications to its protagonist’s worldview, as Jeff’s toxic milieu isn’t condemned or reprimanded but rather reluctantly embraced. And that’s not to mention the dunderheaded and didactic conclusion that quite literally sees Jeff function as a funnel for absolution, where he’s accosted at a Red Sox game by adoring fans that confess their reverence for him.
I’m not going to get bogged down by what David Gordon Green used to mean to me. There’s no point in it. But it’s those aforementioned fleeting moments of formal grace that suggest something so much more profound than what Stronger ends up being: an unimaginative and trite biopic that refuses to challenge its subject and viewers.