Jake Gyllenhaal delivers a raw and unflinching performance in “Stronger”

Image courtesy of Lionsgate Films.

Jeff Bauman, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, stood at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon to cheer on his girlfriend, Erin Hurley (played by Tatiana Maslany). When we first meet Jeff, he’s an easy-going and likable man-child with a complicated on-and-off-again relationship with Erin. After Erin stops by the local bar to collect donations for her marathon run, Jeff seizes the opportunity to win back her affection. He’s determined to prove to her that he’s a changed man, so he promises Erin that he’s going to be waiting for her at the finish line.

Erin doesn’t seem convinced. The next day, Jeff shows up at the finish line, eagerly holding up his own hand-made sign. He sees one of the bombers pass by him, just moments before the explosion. The impact would result in the loss of both his legs.

Despite this being the scene that spirals the plot into action, it’s filmed in a very straightforward way. Mainly from the perspective of Erin, the audience sees very little as the second bomb explodes. There’s no music, or shots of people screaming and crying. It’s not riddled with a wild amount of special effects, and because of this lack of extravagance, it’s even more unnerving. All we see is the confused and frightened look on Erin’s face and the tendrils of smoke hanging in the air.

Based on the memoir written by Bauman and Bret Witter, the bombing is the backdrop of the film; the real story lies with Bauman rebuilding his life in the aftermath of the trauma.

Director David Gordon Green masterfully executes the film. He steers clear of the typical clichés and predictable emotional climaxes found in biopics. Instead of portraying Jeff as a hero and his dysfunctional family as a pillar of support, Green shows them as they are. They’re real people caught in the middle of an unfathomable situation, who just aren’t designed to deal with a tragedy of that magnitude.

It’s impossible to ignore Stronger’s sharp use of close-ups and the way Green’s camera observes the characters’ most personal moments. When the doctor is about to remove Jeff’s leg dressings for the first time and tells Jeff that it’s up to him whether or not he wants to look, the faces of both Jeff and Erin are at the forefront – their foreheads against each other, while just behind them the hands of the doctors and the bandages are slightly out of focus. The scene is orchestrated beautifully while feeling completely natural to the audience.

Scriptwriter John Pollono attended the Toronto International Film Festival screening of Stronger, where he talked about how he felt obligated to do right by Bauman and his family. “It’s about getting people to trust you and tell you their deepest, darkest moments,” he said. “It was about getting these really private people to open up and tell a story.”

Stronger strives for an honest depiction of Bauman’s deeply personal and internal journey to recovery, and it’s driven by the performances. The lived-in feeling of the sets, particularly inside Jeff’s house, also add to the unrefined realism of the film.

When a film is based on both true events and a memoir, the audience enters the film ready to experience something raw, something real. This is exactly what you get from Stronger.

Gyllenhaal, who also co-produced the film, delivers a performance that is more than just convincing, but unflinching and compelling. Both Jeff and his hard-drinking mother Patty (played by Miranda Richardson), often draw on humour to lighten the somber, more serious moments. Richardson steals practically every scene she’s in with her mannerisms and colourful slang.

The audience can’t help but find themselves wrapped around the story and the characters that move it forward; characters that are flawed and human.