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Dead End Lives on South End Streets

MOVIE REVIEW
What Doesn't Kill You (2008)

WDKY-005
Yari Film Group

Brian Goodman – director and co-writer of “What Doesn’t Kill You” – grew up on the mean streets of South Boston and lived a drug and crime-fueled existence until a prison sentence spurred him to change his life. The steadfast, thorough authenticity that envelops the picture surely derives from that autobiographic connection to the material, and the film is undoubtedly better for it. Besides the verisimilitude that imbues the scenes set in and around the neighborhood with a sort of realist poetry, the movie also serves as a deeply affecting character study, telling the story of a weak man struggling to follow the right path.

It stars Mark Ruffalo and Ethan Hawke as best friends Brian and Paulie, deputies of the neighborhood crime boss Pat Kelly (Mr. Goodman) since their teens. They steal, scheme and brazenly threaten their less assured compatriots, acting very much like the young mayors of thuggery. However, turmoil brews beneath Brian’s tough-guy façade. He pathologically neglects his wife Stacy (Amanda Peet) and their two boys, choosing all-night parties, drinking binges and other women over time at home. Soon a crippling drug addiction forces him to begin confronting his destructive lifestyle.

Visually, the film covers some well-worn terrain, unfolding in wood-paneled pubs, nondescript apartment buildings and down the steadily gentrifying streets of the neighborhood. To emphasize South Boston’s working class character, Mr. Goodman and director of photography Chris Norr rarely spruce things up with artificially lit, metaphorically imagined representations of the place. It’s portrayed so naturalistically that even the criminal underworld is depicted in such an immediate, matter-of-fact way that it seems like just another run-of-the-mill profession for the Southies.

Within the straightforward exterior, Mr. Goodman draws out a moving human story. Brian comes to the dramatic fore over the course of the picture, which transforms from one about the machinations of day-to-day criminal existence in South Boston to something deeper: The story of a shy, withdrawn man finally able to start exerting some control over his life. Mr. Ruffalo, the real star of the movie, smartly heightens Brian’s least attractive qualities. He’s perpetually sad, worn down and defeated. His words and actions might characterize him as a tough guy, but the pained demeanor that the star makes a point of emphasizing hints at a very different, damaged person lurking within. When Brian bottoms out, Mr. Goodman never hesitates: In one of the film’s most jarring images we see him asleep, half-naked on a dirty mattress after a drug fix.

The character’s journey from that low point to some measure of self-fulfillment drawn from the director’s own, has been rendered with tremendous sympathy. Despite the specificity of the setting and the extreme depths to which Brian descends, the filmmaker never loses sight of the story’s universal significance. This is a movie, above all, about a broken man forced to confront and combat the worst conclusion imaginable: his personal inadequacies might forever keep him from the fulfilling the needs and expectations of the people that depend on him the most. In “What Doesn’t Kill You,” Brian learns how to love and how to be loved in return; that he has a lot to give; and that – after everything he’s done – there are people who want what he has to offer.

WHAT DOESN’T KILL YOU

Opens on Dec. 12 in Manhattan.

Directed by Brian Goodman; written by Mr. Goodman, Donnie Wahlberg and Paul T. Murray; director of photography, Chris Norr; edited by Robert Hoffman; music by Alex Wurman; production designer, Henry Dunn; produced by Bob Yari, Marc Frydman and Rod Lurie; released by Yari Film Group. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Mark Ruffalo (Brian), Ethan Hawke (Paulie), Amanda Peet (Stacy), Brian Goodman (Pat Kelly) and Donnie Wahlberg (Detective Moran).

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