Dir. Brian Goodman, US, 2008, 100 minutes
South Boston’s Irish gangland fatalism returns to the screen in Brian Goodman’s debut, a buddies-in-crime drama. Two childhood friends in the Southie slums graduate from petty crime to robbery, murder, drugs and prison, and even to a little self-awareness.
The challenge for What Doesn’t Kill You is finding life for this solid yet minor league Boston saga in the audience that has already seen Gone Baby Gone, MysticRiver or The Departed. Ethan Hawke in the cast gives the film a boost in the US and internationally. Foreign interest, while not strong, will depend on selling his performance. Home video could find a market wherever there is a public for Irish-American content.
Paul (Hawke) and Brian Riley (Ruffalo) start out on errands for local wise guys, then move into robbing trucks, dope dealers, and anyone with money. Paul is a lady’s man, but Brian has two young boys and a stalwart wife (Peet) who’s feeling the stress of her husband’s scams and coke habit.
The two thugs end up in prison full of mates from the old neighborhood. Once out again on the wintry streets, they dip their feet back into crime, the local industry, although fate pushes them in different ways. The plot’s resolution, although subdued, will remind cinephiles of Michael Curtiz’s 1938 classic Angels with Dirty Faces.
Actor Brian Goodman based the story on his own life as a former street kid and alcoholic - Ruffalo’s character is named Brian, in case there were any doubts. Goodman’s directing shows a sure hand at the Irish Goodfellas genre, and his actors (including Goodman himself) rally to give the picture plenty of credibility.
His script, co-written with Donnie Wahlberg and Paul T. Murray, starts close to the boilerplate of robbing, fighting and yelling. The film gets the gritty details right, but unfortunately they have become predictable. Some freshness does come in well-conceived prison scenes, where guards are from the same stock as the convicts, and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings which are also fronts for planning scams among the prisoners.
Another story twist takes us into economic populism, when Brian, once out of jail, can’t find a ‘straight’ job to support his wife and kids. South Boston’s gentrification, we are told, has driven the cost of living in the poor neighborhood through the ceiling - perhaps the result of so much movie mythology.
Hawke plays Paul with a cold ruthlessness that reflects the surroundings and a bad boy charm that works with local girls. Ruffalo is more conflicted as the drug-addled family man.
In this encouraging debut, with help from DP Chris Norr and production designer Henry Dunn, Goodman has begun with a subject that he knows. What Doesn’t Kill You, a tough theatrical sell, is still a solid audition tape for more work that is likely to come his way.
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