Bottom Line: Superbly acted, deeply authentic portrait of the lives of two petty thieves in South Boston.
By Peter Brunette
TORONTO — We’ve all seen this film before — two hoodlum friends from the tough, violent streets of South Boston trying to cope with the lure of easy money and the offsetting threat of jail time — but we’ve never seen it this well done.
With Mark Ruffalo and Ethan Hawke registering personal bests in the performance category as well as playing magnificently and ultraconvincingly off each other, “What Doesn’t Kill You,” a true story that is powerful and completely riveting from beginning to end, clearly is one of the best films at Toronto this year.
The independent film recently was bought by Image Entertainment and should do well in limited commercial engagements. Festival programrs should definitely have a look, and ancillary sales, especially DVD, should be robust.
Paulie (Hawke) and Brian (Ruffalo) have been best friends since childhood, when they first started boosting TV sets off the back of trucks. But for 15 years, they’ve been under the strict control of the local Irish Catholic crime boss and are increasingly resentful about the skimpy returns they see after risking their lives on a daily basis.
Finally, they decide to strike out on their own, with disastrous results. Brian, particularly, falls into the maelstrom of drug abuse, becoming a cokehead who feels tremendous guilt for letting down his wife (Amanda Peet, sporting a terrific Boston accent) and two boys.
After a stint in prison, Brian, back out on the unforgiving streets, struggles between the temptation of easy money — especially because he can’t find a decent job and the bills are mountainous — and his desire to be a responsible husband and father.
The film’s remarkable performances can be partially explained by the fact that its director, the first-time but remarkably self-assured filmmaker Brian Goodman, is an experienced actor who has appeared in numerous films and TV shows. But because Goodman grew up in South Boston, everything about the film — the dialogue, characters, situations and symbolically icy, snow-packed locations — shouts authenticity.
The script is fast-moving and well-structured yet also has plenty of funny moments that give insight into the less-than-glamorous life of the petty crook. It also moves significantly away from the cliches of this genre and always seems remarkably fresh.
It also shows the extent to which violence of every possible variety (including domestic) is a constant factor in these characters’ lives, characters who seem to know no other means of solving disputes. One scene after another is staged in an utterly convincing manner, and the overall, cumulative effect is memorable.
Production: Yari Film Group, Battleplan Prods.
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Ethan Hawke, Amanda Peet, Donnie Wahlberg.
Director: Brian Goodman.
Screenwriters: Brian Goodman, Donnie Wahlberg, Paul T. Murray.
Producers: Bob Yari, Marc Frydman, Rod Lurie.
Director of photography: Chris Norr.
Production designer: Henry Dunn.
Editor: Robert Hoffman.
Sales: Syndicate Films International.
No rating, 100 minutes.
The Hollywood Reporter