This is going to sound like a veiled insult, and I certainly don’t mean it that way, but I’m really looking forward to watching Jake Gyllenhaal continue to age. As he’s gotten deeper into his 30s, he’s taken on a haunted quality that I certainly don’t think anyone would have predicted watching that saucer-eyed boy in October Sky. He harnessed that to a deliciously manic effect for 2014’s Nightcrawler, a film that announced to the world a new, turned-to-eleven Gyllenhaal. Even his gonzo turn in Okja felt hollowed-out in a way, sallow and sour. So, it’s interesting in Stronger to watch him bring this quality to what on paper is a pretty standard, overcoming-the-odds, true-story tearjerker. But I suspect director David Gordon Green didn’t cast him at this point in his career by accident, because this overcoming-the-odds, true-story tearjerker is anything but standard, and Gyllenhaal’s performance matches it.
He plays Jeff Bauman, the epitome of a working-class Boston boy. When we meet him, it’s April 14, 2013, and he’s begging his boss at the Costco kitchen to let him off work so he can go to the bar (“bah,” obviously) to watch the Sox game. At the bar, he runs into his ex, Erin (Tatiana Maslany,) who’s collecting donations for her run the next day in the Boston Marathon. Still obviously pining for her, Jeff leaps at the opportunity to be a supportive boyfriend. He’ll be waiting for her at the finish line, he promises. The look on her face tells us she’s heard many such claims before.
As both later realize, it’s the worst possible time and place for Jeff to make good on his promise. The film briefly switches to Erin’s point of view as she nears the finish line and watches from afar as the explosions start to go off; the next time we see Jeff, he’s intubated on a hospital bed, having had both legs amputated. When he comes to, he announces, via handwritten note, that he saw one of the bombers. The FBI arrives, and over the next day, the manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers, which Jeff’s information ends up being a key part of, plays out indistinctly in the background. When the man he identifies is killed by police, a bloodthirsty cheer rings out from the hospital waiting room, but from Jeff’s hospital bed, it’s an empty victory. It’s the beginning of Green’s smart and subtle depiction of Bauman’s alienation from the Boston Strong frenzy that takes the city and the country by storm following the attack. None of the ways society processes the tragedy at large — the flags, the bracelets, the piles of fan mail sent to the apartment he shares with his mother (a memorably toxic Miranda Richardson) — feel relevant to his experience, which is now characterized by constant, ground-shaking uncertainty.
The way Jeff processes his injury is certainly not ready for prime-time (quite literally, at one point, he disappoints his family by refusing an interview with Oprah) and includes drunk-driving, bar fights, and flaking on physical therapy. He becomes more and more resentful of his status as a patriotic martyr, and thanks to Gyllenhaal and Green’s direction, so do we. It seems unfair and grotesque to saddle such a responsibility on someone after what was essentially a random misfortune. But the script, adapted from Bauman’s book by John Pollono, wisely elides depicting the moment of the bombing up close until late in the film, because Jeff is terrified of grappling with it himself.
Much of the film is Jeff as a pendulum, swinging between the depression and dependency that we see subtly affects so much of his family and the promise of growth and maturity represented by his relationship with Erin, which is reignited over the course of his recovery. Though Gyllenhaal is making the clearest bid for the big awards performance and deserves any accolades it brings him, Maslany’s performance was the one that floored me. She starts the film having already run 99 percent of a marathon, and the way she absorbs the high tragedy of the attack in her normal imperfect life is unexpectedly affecting. The film spends enough time on her side of things to dispel every bad supportive-woman cliché that threatens these kinds of roles, and the oscillation between Erin’s love for and mistrust of Jeff speaks to years of love and fights and betrayals and forgiveness. But she’s a runner, and we see her continue to run long after the marathon. It’s aspirational on a smaller scale than Jeff’s monumental comeback, but in a way that I haven’t gotten out of my head yet.