DVD Review: What Doesn't Kill You (2008)

Brian Goodman's Compelling True Story:
What Doesn't Kill You
...Makes You Stronger On Blu-ray & DVD 4/28/09

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What Doesn't Kill You

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Usually when you see, “the following is based on a true story,” you’re expecting a sports movie about a ragtag team of ambitious underachievers fighting to beat out the big, bad, better-funded school comprised of a student body that could be recruited as extras on TV’s Gossip Girl.

Typically, there’s an unlikely coach or mentor thrown into the mix who doesn’t seem to have what it takes or is prone to quit in the process but the underdog star player who has what it takes but doesn’t know it manages to help forge an alliance with him to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and bring home that trophy in films where even second place feels like first place.

Convicted criminal turned actor turned writer/director Brian Goodman’s debut work as a feature filmmaker-- What Doesn’t Kill You-- is thankfully not that kind of movie. While on the surface, it appears to be a South Boston crime movie-- involving a Wahlberg, handsome character actors, and a dark cinematographic color scheme very popular in our post Sopranos and post Departed world-- however, once you look closer, Goodman’s autobiographical picture hearkens back to earlier filmmaking of not just Scorsese’s ‘70s Mean Streets era that Academy Award nominee Ethan Hawke cites in the film’s production notes but even further back to the more old-fashioned realm of On the Waterfront as they also mention.

In this gritty, compelling, and highly authentic urban true-to-life crime drama nothing is glorified; you won’t hear Tony Bennett sing "Rags to Riches" over carefully edited freeze-frame footage or Rolling Stones infused hyper-cuts to help heighten the tension of the cocaine and helicopter sequence of Scorsese’s brilliant New York based GoodFellas and you definitely won’t see Vancouver filling in for South Boston to bring the budget down.

No, it's an intensely personal labor of love helmed by the man who lived it—Brian Goodman. Goodman grew up sleeping on the streets of Boston in the Dorchester neighborhood where as the notes from the Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and Yari Film Group Release explain, you either end up as a cop or a criminal.

Since you can’t exactly join the police academy as a young teen, Brian (played by Mark Ruffalo in the film) took the immediate way out and turned to a life of crime alongside his best friend Paulie (Ethan Hawke) as the two young men became a makeshift family as close as brothers yet also trying to fill in the gaps of the lack of active parenting by looking out for one another the best way they know how.

While the easily charismatic ladies man Paulie brings home a different girl every night, Brian struggles to support his two children primarily raised by his childhood sweetheart turned wife, Stacy (Something's Gotta Give, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip's Amanda Peet). After the boys align themselves with the local mobster Pat Kelly (in a turn by the real-life Brian Goodman), they find that the small percentage of profits gained by hijacking trucks and thefts that sustained them as youths aren’t quite cutting it as they grow too old for the “nickel and dime” jobs.

Therefore, they begin taking far greater risks which get exacerbated by Goodman’s reliance and addiction to hard drugs and alcohol. Facing hard jail time and an even harder life back on the outside—Brian and Paulie struggle to adapt to the outside world as they’re forced to make decisions which will forever alter their paths, relationships, and future.

At its heart, it is a character-based drama where human need, instinct and the almighty desire to “get by,” “get through,” and “survive” is what propels the characters throughout instead of pushing our fictitious "heroes" through the motions of a three act familiar paradigm. Goodman’s work, which began initially upon his post-jail sobriety in 1994 written in a tiny thirty-nine cent notebook from the local Osco Drug Store soon developed into a script that earned major support via friends who believed in both the man and material such as Boomtown's Donnie Wahlberg who met him through mutual family friends upon his release from prison.

Although Wahlberg could relate to the authenticity inherent in Goodman’s script since they grew up in the same areas (although the men had taken extraordinarily different paths) and it was Wahlberg (who also co-stars in the film) and screenwriter Paul T. Murray who assisted Goodman in polishing the screenplay to help it get the attention it deserved-- despite this, it’s ultimately Goodman’s movie. Moreover, it's Goodman's passion to bring his story to the screen that propelled the work from the idea stage to production over the course of more than a decade.

Years later, he formed another great alliance in actor Mark Ruffalo, whom Goodman met and admired while working on the set of Robert Redford’s The Last Castle. Feeling in his gut that in Ruffalo, he’d encountered someone whom he knew was instinctively a man with the right soul for the part—Ruffalo latched on immediately to the work, standing by it for more than the eight years it took to see it fully developed as the actor eventually presented the project to Ethan Hawke in person.

As Hawke recalls Ruffalo’s powerful words, he’d told Hawke who was working in a stage production, “I want to believe in a world where somebody can take themselves from prison and learn a few things, and write their own script and get it made, and direct it and have it turn out great… I want to believe in that world, so if you’re going to believe in it, you’ve got to help make it happen.”

Fortunately Hawke-- who revealed in the DVD’s nineteen minute making-of-featurette that he feels it’s exactly the kind of movie he wants to make and Ruffalo “is one of our great actors"-- felt as strongly as his colleague did and the two are completely convincing from the start as Ruffalo easily slips into the more emotional role of Brian who undergoes major shifts in values and personality throughout the approximately one hundred minute movie.

And, as a fan of Ruffalo’s since he first completely dazzled this reviewer in You Can Count On Me to the point that it was one of a handful of cinematic experiences I can vividly recall wherein you know you’re in the presence of an astounding new talent (just like Norton in Primal Fear etc.)—I must admit that for this film, I was particularly impressed by Before the Devil Knows You're Dead's Hawke who manages to shed his typical persona completely to the point where he looks and sounds like an entirely different actor.

Admittedly, par for the course and typical of the genre where female characters get lost in the shuffle, the always impressive Amanda Peet doesn’t have much with which to work in her few scenes (mostly opposite Ruffalo).

Moreover, I have to admit that structurally, you get the feeling that for the film to have completely paid off much better or compelled you in its wondrous, old-fashioned arc of a true human’s journey, Goodman should’ve spent maybe even five more minutes at the beginning delving into the humble beginnings of Brian and Paulie. While this would've help ed considerably in acquainting us with their stories as boys before they turned into young hoodlums—it’s still a remarkably riveting piece of material.

Quite brave and genuine for a first time filmmaker using his life as source material (especially when opening up about hard drugs and crime instead of home runs or touchdowns) without beating viewers over the head with a message—ultimately as Hawke notes, the essence of the film is one that is fixated on the choices we make in life. To this end, it reminds us in a way that refreshingly doesn’t preach the fact that at any time, we’re allowed to hit reset, take a different turn, say “no,” or opt to make a different decision than most would predict.

Humble, intimate, passionate, and startlingly real with commanding turns by its ensemble and main core of Hawke and Ruffalo in anchoring the production—Goodman’s intelligent piece of filmmaking shows extraordinary promise for the helmer and reminds us that despite the fact we may not be in the mood for darker tales of hardship at the box office right now, there’s still something well-earned and powerfully inspiring about both the film and the story behind the film of What Doesn’t Kill You.

Namely, it reminds us of the promise that no matter how many times we’re left for dead or counted out, we can always come back from things stronger as Brian Goodman did in the story that Wahlberg, Ruffalo, Hawke and others decided exemplified the type of world in which they wanted to live in seeing it was made for viewers to learn from and appreciate.