Stronger Review

Jake Gyllenhaal is one of the best actors alive.

Every time I watch him, I’m amazed. Nocturnal Animals, Enemy, Nightcrawler, Prisoners, all of these performances are Oscar-worthy works. Guess how many Jake has?

Zero.

Guess how many nominations?

One.

This is a federal crime, and if you’ve ever seen him perform, you’d agree. However, I feel that this year will be different. “But Jake Gyllenhaal has been consistently incredible in every movie he’s been in for the past decade! What’s different now?” The difference is he may have done his best work yet.

Stronger is about a real-life survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013, Jeff Bauman. Jeff was able to identify one of the bombers and was hailed as a hero because of it. The movie details his struggles in losing his legs, the sudden insurgence of fame he received from the bombing, and other problems in his life afterwords.

One thing that’s immediately apparent from the start is that it’s trying. This may seem like a given, but you’d be surprised. A lot of films just don’t try to be anything notable, and would rather be lazy because they know it will make them money (if you want examples, try Toy Story 3, Finding Dory, and even Star Wars 7 to some extent. This is not to say I don’t like episode seven, don’t get it twisted.) Stronger is not one of these films. It’s written well, all of the actors clearly care, the cinematographer is trying, and the director is certainly attempting to make a film that can be separated from the usual Oscar-bait that comes out this time of year. While I can commend the film for its’ effort, I’m afraid I can’t always commend it on execution.

The writing is mostly done well, with the exception of a few scenes that feel too over-the-top for their own good, but it’s not overwhelming. The areas where the film fails the most is cinematography, music, and the screenplay. We can get music out of the way pretty quickly: It’s bland and forgettable. The other two are different stories. The cinematography isn’t bad, to be fair, but it isn’t perfect. There are numerous shots where it’s close to being something fantastic, but your eye isn’t drawn to the subject of the shot, making the shot look terrible. There’s one particularly terrible on where Erin (Tatiana Maslany) is sitting on a bench, and she’s positioned on the absolute right of the frame. In cinematography, there are three types of room that make up a good shot: headroom, look room, and back room. Headroom is the space above a subject’s head, look room is space in front of them, backroom is space behind them. The type of room most people concern themselves with is headroom, but the other two are equally important. This shot had zero back room, and because of this, it actually became uncomfortable to look at. The cinematographer seemed to forget that if you’re going to attempt an unconventional shot, you need to actually draw the audience’s eye to the subject.

The screenplay is going to be difficult to discuss unless I define what I mean by that. When I say “screenplay,” I’m not referring to the writing of dialogue or anything like that, I’m referring to how the scenes are arranged in the film. There are multiple scenes that could be cut from the film altogether and nothing would change. There’s a scene where Jeff falls out of the bed, and based on his moaning and groaning, his family thinks he’s… having guy time. Because of this, they don’t go in and help him, leaving him to fend for himself. Let’s analyze why this scene isn’t needed.

To start, we need to establish the actions we see that could pertain to the story. The scene’s short, so there won’t be too many of those. 1: We see Jeff trying to adjust to an everyday task without legs, leading to physical pain. 2: His family doesn’t help, whether they know about his suffering or not. 3: They make a cheap sex joke. The first one we’ve seen before, it happened on a toilet and it was more significant to the development of Jeff’s character than this was. The second one is a little more interesting. One of the things Jeff wrestles with throughout the film is whether or not to accept other people’s help, whether from his family or otherwise. In the toilet scene, Jeff intentionally refuses his family’s help by hiding his strife entirely. Here, it’s unclear whether or not he’s attempting to hide his pain at all. His mother hears him groaning and knocks on the door, and this would be a good time for Jeff to either say “Come in, I’m injured,” or “Don’t worry, I’m fine.” Telling his mother to come in would be inconsistent with later events, and telling her that he’s fine would be redundant. Instead of doing either of these things, he says nothing, and they go with the least necessary option: make a cheap joke about masturbation. The scene as a whole doesn’t even lead into the next. How did his family react to seeing him bloodied? How did he get off the floor without help? Did he eventually call out for someone? If he hid his bleeding from his mother, how did he do that with the very limited mobility he has? None of these questions are answered, and that leaves us with this conclusion about the scene: It doesn’t accelerate the development of any character, doesn’t have any lasting consequences for the rest of the film (or even the next scene,) and is unfunny at best. An unnecessary scene.

Before we get into anything else, we have to spend some time praising Gyllenhaal. This Swedish-American man is one of the greatest gifts to the art of filmmaking to ever grace the screen. He’s so good, I’m struggling to find words to accurately depict just how fantastic he is. When he’s a supporting cast member, he steals the entire movie. When he’s the lead, he carries the film on his shoulders. Stronger is such a perfect example of Gyllenhaal’s capabilities, it’s almost like an acting reel. He manages to play a borderline horrible guy and still make us feel bad for him. This is partially due to Jake’s outstanding performance, but also because the movie displays a very surprising quality.

How many movies have you seen where the protagonist is the ideal man? Not just in looks, but in actions? In many biopics like this one, where the subject goes through a lot of terrible stuff, they gloss over (or forget) the shortcomings of their subject. In Stronger, the filmmakers understand that you can like a person who isn’t perfect. Not every protagonist has to be Charlie from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. People are flawed. If your protagonist is perfect, and he doesn’t get crucified by the Romans, he will not be very relatable. I do understand the motivation behind glorifying your hero, though. It’s easier to deal in black or white than it is to operate in gray. However, just like a rugged 40-year-old action star, a touch of gray can make all the difference. Stronger realizes this. Jeff screws up, in ways that get exponentially worse as the film goes on. But we forgive him because we know he’s not a bad person. He’s a person in need of fixing, and you can’t be fixed if you’re not broken.

I went into Stronger expecting something standard, predictable, and boring. I left pleasantly surprised. It’s by no means a perfect movie, or even a great one. But for a mainstream biopic to take more risks than is generally expected (or seen) was encouraging. If this movie had a better grasp on the technical side of filmmaking, I believe it would have been one of the best this year.

Very strong 6/10.

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