The DVD cover for Brian Goodman’s Boston-based crime drama What Doesn’t Kill You flaunts a dull collection of action stances: Ethan Hawke reloading a gun, a car on fire, and a swat team closing in on some kind of truck mid-explosion. All of this accumulates to present, what will surely be, a gripping slice of action thriller, a rollercoaster of cloak and dagger with cops and robbers. However, whoever put the packaging together deserves some severe words. It’s misleading marketing no matter what. At no point in the film does a car explode or swat team mobilise. This film is not an action thriller.
What Doesn’t Kill You is –however- an enjoyable, well-constructed, crime drama with a keen focus on story and character. If it is approached in that way then any viewer is likely to have a positive reaction. Goodman’s own experiences, as well as those of co-writer and star Donnie Wahlberg, provide the inspiration for a heartfelt and sombre exploration of the lives of two bottom-rung criminals desperate to climb the ladder.
Mark Ruffalo gives a fantastic performance here as a man stuck in a vicious loop: his neglect towards his family is enforced by his constant need to venture out and earn money to pay bills. As the pressure reaches an all-time high, Brian stumbles into drug addiction and gets closer and closer to hitting rock bottom. All the while Ethan Hawke seems to live it up as Jack-the-lad type Paulie; womaniser and hot-head. Though Hawke is great and has an obvious chemistry with Ruffalo, his character can’t help feeling skimpy in comparison to Brian who’s near-ridiculous dependency on drugs and slowly slipping control make for striking viewing.
Beyond character study, it’s difficult to stay entirely engrossed at many points in the film, so you can’t help but wish there had been just a little more of the action promised by the posters. This is a film focused on showing the behind the scenes of crime and very rarely the actual act. It’s a film about the people involved in crime and its impact on their lives, rather than a glorified mess of bullets and chaos.
What Doesn’t Kill You plays out like Goodfellas crossed with Boondock Saints minus the action and humour. Goodman does a great job of incepting a mood for Boston that carries on throughout, ensuring this is a crime film very much tied to its locale. Overall its shot in a formulaic manner, but there’s a few good moments that show an ability with image construction that should have been put to more use: one particular scene showing a night-time assassination is gruelling in its realistic apathy, but gorgeous in all its snow blown shadowy splendour. Still a lack of startling shots isn’t exactly a huge issue, Goodman is to be commended on an entirely grounded, unpretentious portrayal of crime.
Not a show stopping piece of film, but definitely a good one marred only by the false expectations riled up thanks to bad marketing. What Doesn’t Kill You is a character film, driven by great writing and great performances; it’s realistic and feels like a confession of sorts, a man’s life story in all its sordid, unfortunate, but eventually hopeful sentiment.
Dir: Brian Goodman
Stars: Mark Ruffalo, Ethan Hawke, Amanda Peet, Will Lyman, Donnie Wahlberg