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What Doesn't Kill You

Sony Pictures // R // April 28, 2009
List Price: $24.96 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Brian Orndorf | posted April 21, 2009 | E-mail the Author


I'm sure the prospect of another Southie-based story of petty criminals isn't enough to cause a stampede at the local video store. However, "What Doesn't Kill You," while stewing in the juices of unapologetic formula, is a more of a direct injection of stark criminal behavior punctuated by exhilarating performances and a soulful dedication to the moody rhythms of despair. It's a stunningly mounted peek into the tormented heart of a hoodlum, shunning pretense to capture the primal scream of temptation.

Partners in crime since they were kids, Brian (Mark Ruffalo) and Paulie (Ethan Hawke) have spent their lives trying to make a quick buck, pulling off minor shakedowns and robberies to pay the mounting bills. With a distressed family at home (including Amanda Peet), Brian can't cope with his reality, turning to drugs to numb his fears. When the boys end up in jail for a five-year stint, Brian discovers a friend in hope, looking to rid himself of his demons when released from prison and allowed to rejoin his family. When Paulie is set free a few months later, Brian feels the tight grip of temptation again, with his longtime pal talking up a potential armored car heist that could take care of all the nagging problems that low-paying legit work can't possibly solve.

"What Doesn't Kill You" won't win any blue ribbons for originality, but it shows a noteworthy patience with character reflection. There's little plot to latch onto here, just a string of seedy vignettes with Brian and Paulie as they violently work over their neighborhood for profit while keeping peace with local crime bosses and tending to nagging domestic duties. Director Brian Goodman (who co-wrote the script with Donnie Wahlberg and Paul T. Murray, based loosely on his own experiences) isn't consumed with an exhaustive narrative drive that pushes the duo to a tightly scripted breaking point. Instead, the films plays loose like jazz, wandering around rooted South Boston locations built on criminal whim, gathering atmosphere to embroider the characterization and harvest enthralling, unexpected angles of tension. It's a direct punch of filmmaking from Goodman that takes a few moments to accurately process trajectory, but soon begins to show remarkable depth and command of the Beantown felon maze.

"Kill" is a character piece carried with amazing shades of interpretation from Hawke and especially Ruffalo, here achieving career-best work as the tormented Brian. While the gentlemen portray common thuggery with all the profanity-laden machismo they can muster, the dimension of the roles is located within the consequences of their actions, as both Brian and Paulie labor to keep their heads above water.

Programmed to lie, steal, and cheat at a tender age, the pair exhibit little control over their lives, a problem exacerbated by Brian's dalliances with crack and booze. Goodman doesn't push sympathy here, he just underlines the vulnerability, especially when Brian seizes a jailhouse opportunity to rebuild his life through proper channels of employment and domestic respect. Ruffalo is a marvel in the role, nailing Brian's gut-churning typhoon of emotions with a special collection of defeated reactions that are far and away the most compelling and natural moments of acting to ever emerge from this actor. Hawke nails his provocateur moments with silver-toothed allure, and Peet gives a standard wifely plea role some needed hurt, but Ruffalo conveys colossal turmoil with minimal showmanship, helping Goodman find needed elements of shame that make the material all the more hypnotic.



Wandering around lived-in, snow-covered Boston locations, the anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio) presentation for "What Doesn't Kill You" preserves an outstanding amount of gritty, alcohol-stained detail. Atmosphere is sustained through crisp color reproduction and careful black levels that never interfere with the drama. Skintones are realistic, and snowscapes are wonderfully vivid. No obvious digital hiccups were detected.


Again, the film is all about creating a specific neighborhood atmosphere, and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound mix is rich with bass-heavy acts of violence and gentle surround activity for weather situations and claustrophobic prison experiences. Dialogue is paramount here, and the track separates the verbal gunfire from the actual gunfire quite well, with all scripted passages easy to discern.


English subtitles are included.


Preserving reality is the theme of the feature-length audio commentary with director Brian Goodman and writer Donnie Wahlberg, who routinely emphasize the effort of the production to avoid the Hollywood way and treat this story with respect. The track is breathless, as both men enjoy their time recalling production stories, personal touches, and performance glory. Personally, I've never heard Wahlberg this lucid before, greatly impressing me with his intelligent comments on character motivations and narrative authenticity. Goodman is a guy I would love to hang out with and hear stories of his eventful life, but this track is the next best thing, revealing a nervous filmmaker but a confident, charismatic storyteller. A fantastic commentary event.

"Deleted and Alternate Scenes" (14:18) present brief character moments seemingly cut to tighten the pace. One sequence concerning a prison beat down and rape is fairly intense, but wisely snipped to mute unnecessary hysteria. The scenes collected here are exceptional and certainly enhance characterization, and they're worth a look after viewing the feature.

"Makes You Stronger: The Making of 'What Doesn't Kill You'" (18:55) discusses Goodman's protracted efforts to bring his story to theaters, with cast and crew interviews marveling over the authenticity of the screenwriting and the universal quality of the narrative. Audio quality on the featurette isn't the strongest, but the palpable excitement for the material shines through.

A Theatrical Trailer has not been included.


The best way to value "What Doesn't Kill You" is to put the clich├ęs out of your mind. Forget about the relentless cop character (played by Wahlberg) looking to harass Brian, the booze-guzzling Boston brotherhood who keep the characters company, and the lure of recidivism as Paulie plots his armored car takedown dreams. We've all seen these moments before. Instead, plug into the elegant emotional current of the feature, observing these actors attempt to articulate the hopelessness and exhaustion of lawlessness. The beauty of this film is found in less obvious areas, and while the effort could incite impatience, the reward is the opportunity to watch a crime film actually honor the concept of silenced redemption without the use of hackneyed acts of tragedy to sell the gravity of the situation.

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Highly Recommended

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