In Stronger, David Gordon Green's drama about resilience and trauma after the Boston Marathon bombing, the unthinkable occurs in a nicely downplayed scene, the explosion presented as it might have been if you were there, terror booming from nowhere and splitting open the world. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jeff Bauman, a young man who lost both legs in the bombing; the star, giving a capital-P Performance, has little success at showing us what Bauman might have been like before the attack, making him seem clownish in early scenes. But Gyllenhaal has put effort into understanding suffering and survival. Once in intensive care, his Bauman becomes urgently compelling.
Green has made an endearingly curious series of movies -- George Washington, Pineapple Express, Prince Avalanche -- whose only through line is a refusal to do what you would expect. Here, he strips the inspirational weepie of sentiment and sensation.
A lack of sentiment doesn't mean a lack of feeling, of course: A scene of doctors peeling away Bauman's gauze, shot from the side of Gyllenhaal's face but looking down at what's left of Bauman's legs, plays out movingly, slowly, as Bauman fights off his screams. Just when Bauman -- and maybe audiences -- can't take anymore, a new face edges into the frame, filling a void. It's Erin (Tatiana Maslany), his erstwhile girlfriend, tenderly talking him through it.
Gyllenhaal and Maslany will share several tense, troubling scenes over the film's two hours, as Erin moves in with Bauman and his hard-drinking mother and tries to help manage a PTSD that none of them understand. It's hard to reconcile the power of these moments with the bungled sequences of Bauman's fractious extended family, which veer into sneering caricature.