July 09, 2011

What Doesn't Kill You

A movie that overcomes its murky Boston-in-winter setting, carried by Mark Ruffalo's performance as a career criminal who's trying to justify his profession to his wife (Amanda Peet) and two young sons. It's similar to 2010's The Town, except it's a richer character study, and it doesn't sensationalize the violence the way The Town did. Ruffalo is an exceedingly good actor, but he has this calm, monotone voice that I think hides his abilities at first. What he's doing is never immediately apparent. He brings certain flair to his characters but there's a sense in which none of the people he plays are that far removed from each other.

In What Doesn't Kill You (2008), he's Brian Kelly, a guy who's been stealing money all his life (along with partner-in-crime Ethan Hawke). In 2000's You Can Count On Me, he was Laura Linney's ne'er-do-well brother, likewise a character made up of compulsions. Both Brian and Terry feel unable to change the course of their lives. However, there's a greater sense of determination in Brian. He has more at stake than Terry.

What Doesn't Kill You avoids some of the crime genre cliches, partly by some clever editing. Robert Hoffman is credited as the film editor, and he and director Brian Goodman do something quite interesting with this movie's transitions. You will go from one scene to the next without a clear explanation of why you're there, and Goodman leaves it up to the actors to clue us in on what has happened since the last scene. There are often not just spacial movements from scene to scene, but very liminal movements in time.

This movie takes place over 20 years, and yet manages to tell a long story in 100 minutes. You can't be anything less than grateful when the filmmakers are capable enough to get their story out compactly. This story is too grim and murky to be drawn out into an epic form, and Brian Goodman is keenly aware of that in his direction. More than focusing the film at an epic scale, he zooms in on Ruffalo's character, because this is ultimately not a movie about armed car robberies or mindless shootouts, but about the compulsion within a man to keep doing the same dumb things out of pure habit. The movie keeps us cynically convinced that Brian isn't going to be able to resist the pull of the crime world (not to mention the booze and the cocaine that have enslaved him for so long).

Amanda Peet is a terrific actress. She hasn't really gotten her due, but I think she's done good work in everything I've seen her in. She played Rebecca Hall's self-centered sister in Please Give, and she does a good job in a thankless role as Brian's devoted wife, Stacy, in What Doesn't Kill You. Ethan Hawke is also good. He's so sleazy, like a pale, skinny, slightly taller Joe Pesci. The more he ages the more you feel he was made for these kinds of roles. He's come far from the fresh-faced teen in Mystery Date and Reality Bites. With Will Lyman, the director, Brian Goodman, Angela Featherstone, Edward Lynch. Donnie Wahlberg also shows up as a cop.

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