What has lingered, in the days following my viewing of Stronger, the Boston Marathon bombing drama from director David Gordon Green that comes out Friday, are images of Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany in emotional crisis. Here is Gyllenhaal, as bombing survivor Jeff Bauman, crawling through a parking lot, howling into the night. Here is Bauman, falling off a toilet seat, biting a towel and screaming in agony and rage. Here is Maslany (from TV's Orphan Black), as Bauman's on-again, off-again girlfriend Erin Hurley, arriving at the hospital in her running gear, sweaty and bleary-eyed.
The film chronicles the abruptly legless life of Bauman in the aftermath of the explosions. Bauman is a Costco cook by day, and he attends the marathon to win back the affection of Hurley, who's running in the race and with whom he's on hiatus. Their relationship is marked by a strained ebb and flow. Their first encounter in the film, at a sports bar, has the icy guardedness of recent divorce. We sense that Hurley is nearly through giving him additional chances, but also that she loves him.
Bauman is near the epicenter of the explosions and loses both his legs, but the film doesn't dwell on the event itself, as last year's Patriots Day did. That story focused on the manhunt. This one's concerned with the physical and emotional toll on a survivor. Though I was expecting them, naturally, the bombings almost came as a surprise.
Where the film succeeds is portraying the friction between Bauman's sudden celebrity and the drudgery and pain of his new predicament. On one hand, Bauman becomes a symbol of hope for the people of Boston. He helped police identify one of the bombers and partly inspired the hashtag #BostonStrong. But he resents this fame. When he's asked to wave the flag for the national anthem at a Bruins game, he is stricken with images of the bombing. He hates feeling like he's on display, being paraded around in a constant reminder of the worst day of his life. Nevertheless, his mom Patty (Miranda Richardson), with whom he lives, relishes the stardom.
Meantime, Bauman can barely get up the stairs to his apartment. Every movement hurts. There are several scenes in the bathroom — a reminder of how painstaking regular bodily functions can be for people with severe disabilities — and Bauman is routinely discouraged, ignoring his physical therapy and getting drunk with his boys.
It is only with and through Erin that Bauman finds the strength and the will to keep trying. The emotional core of the film is their relationship. Maslany electrifies the screen as Erin, both in her turmoil and in her tenderness. It's a testament to her skills that her internal conflicts feel as rich and urgent as Bauman's external ones. It's clear that the real battle for Bauman is not just conquering his legs, but proving to Erin that he can be a grown-up. "Why do you even want me?" Bauman screams at Erin in the car one night, in what will likely be Gyllenhaal's Oscar clip. "I'm such a fuckup!"
Among other things, Stronger heralds, for me, a welcome return to form for David Gordon Green. Green was a breathtaking indie filmmaker in the early aughts (George Washington, All the Real Girls) who braided intimacy and sorrow in stories of what felt like actual relationships in his native North Carolina. But after Pineapple Express, he's been somewhat tough to pin down. Your Highness? Our Brand is Crisis? What? Stronger is his most successful picture at least since Pineapple Express, and it's in large part because it places a flesh-and-blood romantic relationship, with love and life on the line, front and center.