The phrase "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" has become a rather trite platitude over the years, and writer-director-actor Brian Goodman's forthright reflection on his troubled early manhood, 'What Doesn't Kill You,' proves to be a rather trite film. What begins as an unflinching study of two crooked losers pissing away their lives on petty crime, alcohol, and drugs devolves into an inspirational, shamelessly sentimental movie-of-the-week filled with all the hackneyed confessions, predictable epiphanies, and hyper-emotional outbursts we've come to expect from the genre. Lines like "Go ahead, run; that's what you do best," and "This is who I am!!!" have been recycled so many times they've lost their sting, and the characters' ceaseless soul-searching and excessive hand-wringing try our patience. While I don't mean to disrespect Goodman's life or minimize the struggles he overcame, the demons he vanquished, and the difficult decisions he made to turn his life around, the way he presents it all here doesn't serve him or his audience well.
Brian Reilly (Mark Ruffalo) and Paulie McDougan (Ethan Hawke) grew up the hard way in the brutal slums of South Boston. With thugs as their only role models, their rapid slide into a sleazy life of roughing up local retailers and corner drug dealers – most of it under the tutelage of mobster Pat Kelly (Goodman) – seems predetermined. Paulie harbors few, if any, regrets about his renegade existence, but Brian, who must take care of his wife Stacy (Amanda Peet) and their two young sons, faces constant reproach from his family. Marital tensions and mounting feelings of inadequacy lead him to wallow in cocaine and booze. Addictions, however, require cash, and to support their growing greed and dependence, the two men become embroiled in more lucrative and dangerous jobs, leading Brian to ponder whether the bountiful fruits of his illegal labors and substance-induced highs are worth losing the three people he holds most dear.
'What Doesn't Kill You' is a delayed coming-of-age tale, and the stunted growth of its main character mirrors the struggles of many men in our society to disentangle themselves from the adverse circumstances and debilitating habits of their youth. Not only must Brian try to beat back his addictions, but he must also learn to become a devoted husband and loving father, a responsible provider, and how to abandon shortcuts and walk a straight and narrow path. It's a tall order, but the way Goodman constructs the film – especially its second half – his ability to tackle it is rarely in doubt. A dark cloud of doom and dread should constantly hang over the story, but I never felt it. Only in the disturbing, all-too-graphic freebasing scenes (which Goodman overplays) did the movie punch my gut; otherwise, I felt very much like a detached spectator.
As an actor, Goodman has been a fixture in TV and movies for more than a decade, but 'What Doesn't Kill You' marks his first foray into writing and directing. While I can understand his desire to pen his own story, the decision to let him direct it seems misguided at best. There's little flair in Goodman's straightforward approach, and the dull visuals coupled with an often inert plot drag the film down. I kept waiting for 'What Doesn't Kill You' to really grip me, but despite its well-drawn characters, the movie lacks tension, and its meandering style makes it seem much longer than its 100-minute running time.
Hawke files the film's best performance in a role that's the antithesis to his weak, sniveling man-child in 'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.' (In fact, the opening shopping mall sequence depicting an aborted attempt to knock off an armored car is eerily reminiscent of the pivotal robbery scene in Sidney Lumet's great film.) More natural than in many previous pictures, Hawke wisely abandons his anguished persona, and his tough, no-nonsense portrayal consistently commands our attention. Ruffalo enjoys some nice moments as well, but never engenders the hearty sympathy necessary to make us truly care about his character. The script lets him down at several key points, and his face rarely betrays any emotional complexity, making him often look like an aimless sad-sack. As his frustrated wife who feels trapped by her circumstances, Peet is raw and believable, but sometimes goes over the edge.
'What Doesn't Kill You' should be the type of movie that socks you between the eyes and makes a powerful statement about choice and integrity, but its lackluster presentation diffuses any potential in that regard. There's a lot of truth on screen, but not enough drama, and though I give Goodman tremendous credit for pulling his life together and forging an enviable career, his film doesn't do his story – and the stories of many men like him – justice.
If you're looking for a vibrant, multi-dimensional transfer, you'll want to steer clear of this middling 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC effort from Sony. The washed out look is certainly intentional, and it effectively emphasizes the bleak atmosphere of South Boston in the dead of winter. The muted color palette never deepens, even in bright sunlit scenes, and notable grain lends the image an indie grittiness that suits the material. Clarity is fine, but don't expect fine details to jump out at you. While the source print is quite clean, overall brightness is pumped a notch or two too high, so we don't get the contrast or depth that makes 1080p pictures so pleasing. As a result, black levels fall on the weak side, but fleshtones look natural and remain stable.
All in all, this is one of those transfers that's serviceable, but doesn't generate any added excitement.
During the opening sequence, I had high hopes for the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track. Details, such as tires crunching against the pavement and rapid gunfire, at first come across crisply, and Alex Wurman's music score enjoys nice depth and solid separation across the front channels. But as the film progresses, the sound loses its punch; effects become less distinct and the rears go to sleep. Dialogue remains well prioritized and easily understandable, but bass frequencies never really perk up, and overall audio range seems limited.
By no means is this an inferior track; it just possesses no distinguishing qualities. It does what's required of it, nothing more.
A few decent extras add some bulk to the disc, but all are in standard definition with stereo sound.
'What Doesn't Kill You' may be based on one man's extraordinary resurrection, but it's not an extraordinary film. This standard tale of loss and redemption features good performances, but the script and direction just aren't strong enough to lift the film out of the pack. Video, audio, and supplements are all run-of-the-mill, making this Blu-ray worthy of a rental at best.
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