What Doesn’t Kill You is a nifty, gritty little crime gem that slipped past a good chunk of people back in 2008, and you really have to hand it to veteran character actor and first time filmmaker Brian Goodman – he took traditional genre material and made it absolutely pop. This is an excellent but brutal Boston-set crime picture with a phenomenal lead performance by Mark Ruffalo, who is absolutely one of my favorite actors currently working. The fact that this was Goodman’s directing debut only makes the film even more impressive; it displays a sturdy confidence much in the same way that Gone Baby Gone, The Departed, and Mystic River had while working in this similar milieu. The film is very simple but extremely effective, and benefits from a great sense of verisimilitude.
Brian (Ruffalo) and Paulie (Ethan Hawke, terrific as always) have been best friends since childhood. Growing up in the rough and tumble “Southie” district of Boston has led them into a life of crime. They report to crime boss Pat (Goodman, smartly casting himself in the role), who is always taking a cut of their payouts. But when Pat goes to prison, Brian and Paulie start doing jobs on their own and not reporting in to Pat’s team. Then, Brian becomes a base-head, much to Paulie’s anger. And as a result of Brian’s addiction, his relationship with his wife Stacy (Amanda Peet, always solid) and kids becomes very strained. All of these things lead to a climactic decision on the part of Brian and Paulie of whether or not to try and rob an armored truck, which could be the score of their lives.
The film works first and foremost as a meat and potatoes crime movie, but by the end, you’ll notice all the small bits of detail that have been snuck in around the grungy edges. All of the genre’s themes are there: loyalty, friendship, honor, betrayal, love, and anger. Yet none of it ever feels tired or trite. And then when you realize that the movie is a true story, one that’s based on Goodman’s own life (Ruffalo is playing him!), it becomes all the more riveting. Goodman, who co-wrote the sharp screenplay with Donnie Wahlberg(!) and Paul T. Murray, directs with a straight-forward grace and cold elegance that melds perfectly with the wintry backdrop to this always compelling story.
Christopher Norr’s desaturated and grey-hued cinematography was a perfect tonal match for the chilly environments and morally ambiguous nature of the characters and narrative. Alex Wurman’s score provided solid dramatic support, emphasizing key scenes with subtle vigor, but never overpowering any of the action or the performances. Had The Yari Film Group not filed for bankruptcy around the time of this film’s release, I really think that Ruffalo could have been in the running for an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. He was that strong, finally getting a meaty starring role after years of colorful supporting work.
Review by Nick Clement