Every once in a while a movie comes along that has a very strong social message, but never comes across as heavy handed or preachy. What Doesn’t Kill You is one of the best of those movies that I’ve seen in some time. It’s based upon the real life struggles of Brian Goodman, who wrote the screenplay while he was in prison. Goodman was a lifelong criminal who was also addicted to booze and drugs. With the inspiration he gained from his two young sons, Goodman turned his life around. He got himself sober and avoided the temptations that would lead him back into a life of crime and ultimately prison. Another danger sign in these kinds of films is when you have one man who wrote, directed, and stars in a movie. These “one man band” types of films more than not fail on almost every level. Again, I have to say that What Doesn’t Kill You manages to rise above these trappings. Goodman manages an almost impossible feat here. He tells a socially powerful story, from his own personal experience, and never forgets that ultimately the end result must entertain above anything else. The most important of messages falls completely ineffective if ultimately no one ever sees the movie. And, trust me, when I tell you. More people need to see this movie.
Brian Reilly (Ruffalo) (Goodman’s character) and Paulie McDougan (Hawke) are practically brothers. They grew up together in the same south Boston Irish neighborhood and were inseparable since they were in elementary school. They admire the local crime boss and neighborhood protector Pat Kelly, played here by Brian Goodman. Kelly runs the local criminal activities out of a corner bar. He gets a piece of anything that goes on in the hood. The boys start out as kids running envelopes and other errands for Pat. Fifteen years later, they’re still doing small jobs for the boss. They’re beginning to get frustrated that they haven’t graduated to better things and more money. They soon break the cardinal rule and start to go on their own. Mostly it’s small time stuff. They roust drug dealers and take down a few trucks. But their cowboy antics are about to get them in trouble. They risk making an enemy out of the still powerful Pat, but more importantly they have brazenly taken down quite a few punks. Brian is also beginning to drink too much and is eventually introduced to crack cocaine. He’s messing up. His wife is getting frustrated with him, and he’s making mistakes “on the job”. Those mistakes end up getting him shot. Miraculously, he survives, even though he leaves the hospital against medical advice to get high. The mistakes eventually lead the two friends to get busted and do five years in prison. Brian gets out first. He makes an attempt to stay sober and away from criminal activity. He’s helped by an AA mentor he befriended in prison, named Sully (Lyman). But when Paulie gets out, his need for money and his frustration at playing it straight threaten to bring him right back into those activities that put him in prison. What will he do? Will he repeat the mistakes of the past, or will he be strong for his wife and sons, who waited for him for five years of prison?
Brian Goodman manages to bring the personal passion of this story to the screen without ever feeling the need to hit us over the head with his moralizing. Instead he found actors who brought realism to the parts and went for a compelling drama deeply rooted in reality. Both Mark Ruffalo and Ethan Hawke are very good here. The chemistry between them is completely believable. I get the feeling from the beginning that these two guys share the tight bond and brotherhood necessary to make this story effective. They are best when they walk the streets of south Boston acting as if they’re immune from reprisal or police interference. Honestly, the brazenness is so outrageous that if it were not for the powerful performances here it would look absolutely silly. Goodman himself joins the cast as the pivotal character of Pat, who starts these guys on their life of crime. It’s not awkward at all that he’s basically acting opposite of a character that is himself. Amanda Peet deserves some mention as Brian’s wife. The character takes the brunt of Brian’s mistakes and she manages to play the complex relationship quite convincingly. I’m sure it was a help to the actors that the real person the story was based on, was there constantly wearing many hats. Whatever inspiration they drew from, the performances sell this thing more than anything else. This is a better film than it is likely to ever get credit for being. The film’s only real flaw is a climax that is a bit of a cheat. We’ve all seen the idea of that one last heist to allow the characters to retire from crime. Goodman begins the film there, moving backwards, and then cheating his way out of the climax he appeared to paint himself in a corner with. I would much have rathered he trusted his earlier instincts and continued to play it straight with us. He was doing such a fine job that it was a mistake to veer from the path.
What Doesn’t Kill You is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Most of the action takes place over several winters in Boston. That means a lot of snow and a lot of white. Goodman chose to use a lot of white in his lighting as well. That often gave the film a washed out appearance. It hurt particularly on flesh tones which tend to be a little pale. He does give us some wonderfully atmospheric moments. The snowy night where Brian gets shot is an eerie cinematic moment that brought together some very nice elements to make it a powerful scene. The snow against the darkness with just street lighting is brilliant. Black levels are good. There were some digital compression issues. I would really have loved seeing this in high definition.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track works well in this dialog driven piece. There are some fine examples of ambient sounds here, but most of the action is front and center. The score is appropriately subtle and low key. While there is nothing exciting at all about this presentation, it fits the mood of the film perfectly.
There is an Audio Commentary provided by director, producer, actor and writer Brian Goodman. He’s joined by fellow screenplay writer Donnie Wahlberg. Goodman dominates with such vivid recollections and personal touches that you really find this guy to be likable, even with his violent and troubled past. He owns up to the mistakes and never blames the consequences he paid on anyone or anything but himself. That kind of personal responsibility is rare today.
Deleted Scenes: (14:19) You get 13 with an optional commentary and play all feature. Most are mere extensions. I rather liked one that revealed to us that the child molester the boys beat up in prison got a little something extra after his beat down.
Makes You Stronger – The Making Of What Doesn’t Kill You: (18:56) Talking about Goodman’s own life journey, the cast and crew marvel at what an inspiration their leader was. It’s a love fest, certainly, but it’s rather low key and intimate.
This movie throws up so many of my usual warning signs that I would have likely avoided it on my own. One of the benefits of this job is that you’re exposed to stuff whether you like it or not. Often it can mean grueling hours suffering through absolute crap. But, there are rare times when a movie sneaks up on you and manages to get under your skin. This is certainly one of the best examples of the latter. I avoided watching this one, even after it arrived. Don’t make that mistake. You can run, but eventually, “Everyone gets caught”.
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