Editor’s Notes: Stronger opens in theatrical release today, September 22nd.
If there was a Lifetime Achievement Award for Acting, chances are Jake Gyllenhaal would be in the running, if not win outright. A confident, fearless performer, Gyllenhaal has crafted a career as a performer playing larger-than-life characters, sometimes to the detriment of the film surrounding his performance. Gyllenhaal has appropriated the usual tools of the acting trade, body language, dialogue delivery, and facial expressions, and turned them loose on a variety of contrasting, divisive roles, from the sociopathic, on-the-spectrum videographer in Nightcrawler to the punch-drunk fighter and family man in Southpaw, from the tic-driven, obsessive, insomniac cop in Prisoners to the recent turn as a zoologist and TV personality in Okja. It’s less a question of skill or talent than one of preference: Gyllenhaal believes in whole-hearted, whole-bodied commitment to whatever role he takes.
The minute-by-minute, second-by-second psychological, emotional, and mental toll plays across Gyllenhaal’s face with an honesty, genuineness, and vulnerability typically absent from Gyllenhaal’s more expansive, showy roles.
It’s not that Gyllenhaal can’t do nuance or subtlety. He can (see, e.g., Enemy, Jarhead, Donnie Darko). It’s simple that – to paraphrase the title character in Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” – he prefers not to. Luckily, Gyllenhaal’s latest role as Jeffrey Bauman, a victim of the Boston Marathon bombing who lost his legs in David Gordon Green’s (Our Brand is Crisis, Joe, Prince Avalanche, George Washington) Stronger, gives Gyllenhaal the chance to show his entire skillset without compromising Gordon’s surprisingly nuanced vision. In just a few brushstrokes, Gordon introduces Bauman as an Average Joe, a Common Man, in love with the Boston Red Sox (a given for anyone born and raised in Boston apparently) almost as much as he’s in love with his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany). To prove he’s moved beyond his days as a semi-professional screw-up, he claims he’ll cheer Erin from the finish line of the marathon. Their past together suggests otherwise, but Erin humors him, expecting little or nothing from his talk.
Despite Erin’s doubts, Jeff makes his way to the finish line of the marathon, waving a placard with Erin’s name just a few feet away from the bomb. He even brushes shoulders with one of the bombers. When Jeff finally recovers consciousness, he discovers that he’s lost both of his legs. It’s almost immediately obvious that Jeff’s recovery will be hindered, if not undermined, by his family and their competing, conflicting agendas – his alcoholic, chain-smoking mother, Patty (Miranda Richardson) – sees Jeff’s predicament as both burden (since she’ll have to slide back into a caretaking mode) and an opportunity (to turn Jeff into a money-making brand, the embodiment of the soon-to-be-coined term, “Boston Strong”). Gordon doesn’t turn Patty or Jeff’s family into one-dimensional villains, helping Jeff out of strictly ulterior, selfish motives, but instead embraces them in all of their messy, infuriating, working-class glory.
As Jeff, Gyllenhaal gives one of the most restrained performances of his acting career. Unlike other actors attempting a Boston accent, Gyllenhaal’s looks and sounds effortless, almost near-native perfect.
Jeff initially rebuffs Erin’s attempts to reintegrate herself into his life, in part out of pride (he doesn’t want to be pitied), in part out of misplaced anger (his mistimed romantic gesture). Erin grapples with guilt, however unwarranted, on her own, but as Jeff struggles through the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), grief magnified by post-traumatic-stress-disorder that results in wild mood swings and unexpected flashbacks to the bombing, he also struggles with reconceptualizing his sense of self and his sense of worth, especially when he becomes a symbol of the Boston Strong movement. The Boston Strong movement may have been well intentioned, a way to bring Bostonians and non-Bostonians alike to celebrate Boston’s “never quit” grit, but it was also quickly coopted, turned into a branding exercise, an excuse to sell feel-good merchandise while minimizing or ignoring the life-long consequences of the bombing for survivors like Jeff.
As Jeff, Gyllenhaal gives one of the most restrained performances of his acting career. Unlike other actors attempting a Boston accent, Gyllenhaal’s looks and sounds effortless, almost near-native perfect. A performance, of course, is more than an accent. With Gordon’s camera following close by or in near-constant close-up at Jeff’s eye-level, Stronger succeeds or fails almost completely on Gyllenhaal’s performance. Despite Jeff’s disability (aided, presumably by CGI), it’s not Jeff’s physical injuries that define Jeff or Gyllenhaal’s performance, but how he reacts to those injuries. The minute-by-minute, second-by-second psychological, emotional, and mental toll plays across Gyllenhaal’s face with an honesty, genuineness, and vulnerability typically absent from Gyllenhaal’s more expansive, showy roles. Jeff feels like an inside-out, not an outside-in performance, suggesting a new skill in Gyllenhaal’s toolkit, a new maturity as an actor, or quite possibly both.
Stronger, gives Gyllenhaal the chance to show his entire skillset without compromising Gordon’s surprisingly nuanced vision.