Sony // 2008 // 100 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // May 6th, 2009
They didn't choose a life of crime. They came from it.
In a lot of ways, this review would be easier to write if the film wasn't based on a true story. It's a story that we've definitely seen before, especially recently as The Departed and The Wire have turned their eyes on crime in non-New York Eastern coast cities like Boston and Baltimore. It's about as familiar as it gets, as two low-level hoodlums find themselves in all kinds of trouble. What Doesn't Kill You is a true story, though, so it rings true in a way it otherwise wouldn't deserve to.
Brian (Mark Ruffalo, Blindness) has grown up in rough circumstances in South Boston. He and his friend Paulie (Ethan Hawke, Fast Food Nation) were taken under the wing of a local crime boss, but the jobs aren't as lucrative as promised to a couple teenaged kids. By the time they're 30, they find themselves struggling to make ends meet, especially as Brian tries to support his growing alcohol and cocaine habits. When the two of them start taking jobs on the side and end up in prison, it's a chance for both of them to turn things around. But how do you walk away from everything you've ever known?
It really does make a huge difference that What Doesn't Kill You was written by Brian Goodman, the main character of the story. It makes this a meaningful and significant film, with a hearty emotional punch. He was heavily involved in the production of the film, so he was able to make sure that it never turned into a glamorized portrayal of the criminal underworld. He got actors who aren't usually associated with these kinds of roles to escape typecasting, as well.
Unfortunately, What Doesn't Kill You's greatest strength is also its biggest weakness. It's not a long enough film to be the kind of sprawling epic that it wants to be, and as a result it often feels a little stilted. The lead-up to prison takes a bit too long, which doesn't leave enough time for the struggle afterwards, which is the most unique and interesting part of the film. It's hard to criticize Goodman's telling of his own experiences, but the film doesn't feel as polished as it should.
The lack of polish in the plotting doesn't extend to the other aspects of the production. It's well filmed, balancing a pretty classic approach with some nice gritty hand-held camerawork. The performances are also consistently impressive. Mark Ruffalo is able to handle the emotions, but he's also surprisingly believable as an enforcer. Ethan Hawke carries his role well also, with loads of toughness and volatility. Their relationship stays at the core of the film.
The DVD has a solid transfer, both in its video and audio. The 2.35:1 image is a good showcase for the film's overall look, though it probably looks significantly better in high definition. The sound delivers what's required, but never really stands out. In terms of special features, there is a commentary track from author Brian Goodman and Donnie Wahlberg, who helped him adapt it to screen. It's a good track, and they walk through the film with sincerity and passion. There are also deleted scenes as well as a production featurette. The special features are a testament to how much love went into the film.
My biggest complaint about What Doesn't Kill You, without a doubt, is the beginning and end of the film. It does one of those dramatic "flash to the end" scenes, but it's horribly misleading. Because of that, we are left looking ahead through the whole film to a moment that doesn't actually happen. It's slippery narrative trickery of the worst kind, and it left me with a sour taste in my mouth. As it stands, I can't recommend What Doesn't Kill You as strongly as I would like to be able to. It's a good story told with sincerity and truth, but it's not as strong of a film as it should be.
And that's too bad, because I'd love to be able to tout What Doesn't Kill You as a sparkling gem in a crowded genre. Still, Goodman has told his story, and fans of the crime genre will enjoy this trip into its seedy world.
Not guilty, though I wish it were a little more innocent than it actually
Review content copyright © 2009 Joel Pearce; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site