By Justin Stewart
What Doesnâ€™t Kill You
Dir. Brian Goodman, U.S., Yari Film Group
Even though the film seems a trifle proud that itâ€™s based on fact (an opening title card informs that â€śThe story you are about to see is trueâ€ť), What Doesnâ€™t Kill Youâ€™s experiential personal involvement does distinguish it from its generic makeup. A pithy â€ścrime film set in South Bostonâ€ť sum-up shrieks redundancy following recent Beantown slummings from Eastwood, Scorsese, and Affleck (anticlimax intended). But because it tells the story of director, cowriter, and costar Brian Goodmanâ€™s hardscrabble adolescence and painful passage into manhood, thereâ€™s a connection to both environment and story missing from touristsâ€™ Boston films. Interest in What Doesnâ€™t Kill You might suffer a little from its Infamous-like aura of yesterdayâ€™s papers, but itâ€™s fair to say that Boston, and the crime film, are both historic and capacious enough to sustain the recycling.
The filmâ€™s generics go beyond setting. Mark Ruffalo and Ethan Hawke play longtime friends edged into lives of crime early on due to financial necessity. The movieâ€™s central concern is whether Ruffaloâ€™s Brian, a decent man with a family, can escape the cycleâ€”hard because itâ€™s â€śthe only life he knows.â€ť Itâ€™s a well-worn plot crux, but it withstands endless use because itâ€™s a dilemmaâ€”trying to stop an obviously unsuitable mode of livingâ€”that transcends profession. Brian and Paulie (Hawke) take their orders from local crime boss Pat Kelly (Goodman). Feeling stagnated, they eventually go freelance, a risky gambit made riskier by Brianâ€™s escalating alcohol and crack addictions. Soon enough, theyâ€™re locked up, facing five to ten.
Like most of the movieâ€™s sequences, the prison passages are appealingly understated and mundane, almost boringâ€”like jail life. Thereâ€™s unexpected poignancy in a speech about prisoners being cowards â€śfilled with fear.â€ť Itâ€™s true; looking past the obvious perils of lockup, a life of three squares and no responsibilities can be an appealing vacation for people who suck at life. Itâ€™s no surprise that Brianâ€™s real struggle comes after, as he tries to stay sober and convince his wife (Amanda Peet) and sons that heâ€™s a worthy member of the family. Goodman consciously avoids self-pity and exaggeration, two typical pitfalls of autobiography. Heâ€™s assisted in this by Ruffalo, whom he met acting in Rod Lurieâ€™s barely memorable Robert Redford vehicle The Last Castle. Ruffalo is one of the best working actors for balancing toughness and sensitivity, and heâ€™s as convincing here delivering beatdowns as he is almost begging his son to tell him how to be a dad.
I want to make apologies for What Doesnâ€™t Kill Youâ€”a genre movie with heart that only rarely disrespects your intelligence. The bookending heist scene revisited at the end is a trick. You find out that one of the characters wasnâ€™t actually thereâ€”it was all a flight of fancyâ€”and feel a little deceived, like when narrators turn out to be dead. The tactic also slightly cheapens the evolving character studies, since you (think you) know where itâ€™s all heading. Shots of Hawke sticking up a suburban stripmall store seem like splices directly from Before the Devil Knows Youâ€™re Dead stock, but Goodman generally avoids the latterâ€™s high-pitched cerebralness. A â€śWhere Are They Now?â€ť epilogue is bush-league, made-for-Lifetime caliber, and a scene showing Brian and Paulie battering a child molester in jail has an unsettling back-patting quality to it.
Overall, though, this underdog movie gets the little things right. There are no overdone Kennedyesque accents; Ruffalo and Hawke both speak in a gruff near-monotone, as if purposely trying to avoid cartoonish Boston-movie parlance. Goodman and DP Chris Norr couldâ€™ve gone shaky-cam. They wisely opted not to, and it all looks handsome, especially a magic hour pickup football game on a snowy, fluorescent-lit field ringed by passing cars. The naturalistic feel is reminiscent of Nick Gomezâ€™s classic Laws of Gravity, the Ninetiesâ€™ best band-of-lowlifes movie. The screenplay by Goodman, Donnie Wahlberg, and Paul Murray is not overwritten, avoiding melodrama in treacherous â€śa troubled fatherâ€™s redemptionâ€ť territory; and thereâ€™s none of the look-at-me floridness favored by The Wire writing stable (Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, etc.). Itâ€™s refreshing after Lehaneâ€™s repugnant script for the crass, exploitative Gone Baby Gone, with its â€śgot a fucking ass like a Skippy jarâ€ť and charming â€śgo suck a niggerâ€™s dick.â€ť What Doesnâ€™t Kill Youâ€™s empathetic treatment of Brianâ€™s addiction has the same reflective wisdom as Olivier Assayasâ€™s in Clean.
â€śItâ€™s not gonna change the world, butâ€¦â€ť begins many a condescending backhanded compliment, but it applies here. Itâ€™s a small movie with modest ambitions, and you wonâ€™t hear much about it months from now. But thereâ€™s love in this labor. The filmmaker and castâ€™s obvious pleasure in bringing this understated, well-told story of its creatorâ€™s life to the screen is infectious.