What Doesn’t Kill You (2008)
Like most the films we pick for “Picture of the Week”, What Doesn’t Kill You slipped through the cracks on its initial release. I believe it was lost in the December/January Oscar jumble and did not get enough recognition to earn any awards or much of an audience either.
The story of the film seems like it’s been done a million times. It’s the story of a couple young gangsters (Mark Ruffalo and Ethan Hawke) living dangerous and trying to move up the ranks in their city (Boston in this case, like Scorsese’s The Departed and Affleck’s The Town). It’s been done before in many variations, harking back to Raoul Walsh pictures like Regeneration and The Roaring Twenties with many renditions in the last hundred years of cinema.
So why is this film worth mention? Because although it does not break any new ground, it features fantastic performances (perhaps the best of their careers) from Ruffalo and Hawke, as well as great moments of truth from writer/director and actor Brian Goodman.
Director Goodman with Hawke and Ruffalo
As the two characters in the film (childhood friends and partners in crime) take on various scores to move up in the world, the actors create fresh interpretations of the tired gangster image. Ruffalo is a father (a bad one of course), he’s got an extreme temper, and he becomes addicted to drugs. His main struggle in the film revolves around his commitment to his sons and his wife (played by Amanda Peet) as his environment leads him towards a life of crime. Again, it sounds like a tired old conflict but Ruffalo brings an incredible intimacy and truth to this man, especially in the last half of the picture. His moments of rage are balanced with touching understated scenes between him and his son, as well as a fellow con and reformed alcoholic (played by Will Lyman) who tries to steer him straight. With this (and his recent performance in The Kids are Alright) Ruffalo proves himself to be an intelligent actor and one of the most interesting to watch.
Hawke, who I was recently underwhelmed by in The Woman in the Fifth, delivers his best performance in years as Ruffalo’s wilder half. What I really like about Hawke’s work here is how he captures a Boston gangster (with a death wish) while contrasting our expectations of the character by making him the most reasonable character in the movie. Hawke’s creation, though he is the instigator of crime, remains the voice of reason throughout the picture: pulling Ruffalo away from the drugs, demanding with logic that he get his fair share from the older neighborhood gangsters, telling a young girl that he’s not the kind of man she should fall in love with, and understanding Ruffalo’s plight better than he understands it himself. It really is the more subtle and more brilliant performance of the two.
I believe what makes the film work beyond the acting is Brian Goodman’s personal connection to the story. Apparently the film follows his own experience in the 1990’s. This elevates the writing above the plot’s conventions and creates a compelling directing debut.
What Doesn’t Kill You is an ordinary crime film with extraordinary parts.