What with its aerial shots of South Boston modeled after Gone Baby Gone (and, before that, Mystic River), and its thieving brothers (surrogate, in this case) executing a daring strip-mall heist reminiscent of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, you’d be forgiven for thinking, while watching What Doesn’t Kill You, that it was still 2007. Brian Goodman’s autobiographical film is about the writer-director’s roughneck early years, when he (Mark Ruffalo), along with best friend Paulie (Ethan Hawke), worked odd criminal jobs for boss Patt (Goodman) in an effort to support his wife (Amanda Peet) and two kids. As the title implies, Brian’s saga is one in which fortifying lessons were learned from the felonious life, as his thuggery led to crack addiction led to foolish decisions led to prison led to the realization that he was letting down his loyal wife and sons. Were Goodman to convey his tale to you over drinks, it would undoubtedly prove gripping, but as a narrative feature, it lacks dynamic punch. Save for a job in which he’s hired to kidnap a poodle, Brian’s illicit activities (hijacking trucks, robbing drug dealers) are of a rather mundane variety, his rapport with Paulie—unlike in Before the Devil, Hawke here playing the confident, tough hood—is routine and unaffecting, and his eventual epiphany is spurred not by any dramatically engaging events but simply from mounting disgust and frustration with himself. That Brian’s transformation stems simply from an accumulation of emotions certainly gives What Doesn’t Kill You a moderate sense of realism. But his life’s particulars (even if wholly true) blandly mirror elements from hundreds of similar cinematic stories, leaving his descent into (and ascent from) illegality devoid of much excitement or novelty. With hunched shoulders and eyes whose hardness can’t fully mask self-loathing, Ruffalo expressively communicates his character’s amplifying sense of (bullshit) powerlessness to alter his chosen path. Yet despite competent turns by Hawke and Peet (exuding spousal indignation in a thick Boston accent), the film around him—ending on a corny freeze frame and textual coda that seems straight out of a ‘70s TV movie—never musters the requisite momentum or intrigue to separate itself from the burgeoning Boston-crime-saga pack.
- Yari Film Group
- 100 min
- Brian Goodman
- Brian Goodman, Donnie Wahlberg, Paul T. Murray
- Mark Ruffalo, Ethan Hawke, Amanda Peet, Will Lyman, Brian Goodman, Donnie Wahlberg
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