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Our review of What Doesn't Kill You, published May 6th, 2009, is also available.
They didn't choose a life of crime. They came from it.
I like a good crime film as much as the next guy, and the pairing of Ethan Hawke and Mark Ruffalo is intriguing. But with the script partially credited to Donnie "I Made a NKOTB song get bleeped" Wahlberg, I had to wonder if What Doesn't Kill You could live up to its pedigree.
Facts of the Case
Friends since they were kids, Brian (Mark Ruffalo, Collateral) and Paulie (Ethan Hawke, Training Day) spend their days running errands for an organized crime boss (Brian Goodman, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift) in South Boston. The pay is lousy, and Brian's having trouble meeting his family commitments, leading to some serious showdowns with his no-nonsense wife (Amanda Peet, Syriana). As Paulie schemes to find new ways to make money, cutting out the boss in the process, Brian develops an addiction to crack cocaine that threatens to derail his attempts to go straight.
The opening few minutes of What Doesn't Kill You strike as an amalgam of Narc and Goodfellas. In gritty, desaturated tones, we see Paulie and Brian prepare to take down an armored car; the robbery doesn't go as planned, and over a freeze-frame, we hear a snappy voiceover. Cut to credits sequence. Fortunately, the film finds its own voice after this bit of early action, settling in to tell the tale of two hardscrabble criminals living hand-to-mouth, trying to find an angle to improve their circumstances.
As the story progresses, it becomes increasingly impressive how well Hawke and Ruffalo blend into the South Boston milieu. Hawke seems especially authentic, turning in a Bostonian performance as convincing as anything Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting) has done. If for no other reason, What Doesn't Kill You is worth seeing for the high caliber of acting on display from the two leads.
What Doesn't Kill You works very hard to deglamorize criminal enterprise, showing a life of crime to be a path that is not only violent and dangerous, but decidedly dead-end. Despite slaving for years under crime boss Pat Kelly's thumb, neither Brian nor Paulie have two nickels to rub together, so it's understandable that they begin to get a little antsy and start to look for ways to work for themselves. Between Brian's drug use and dysfunctional family life, and Paulie's volatile temper, prospects aren't good for a happy ending in either's future. There's little joy in these men's lives; they're moving along from one low-paying score to the next, unsure of the way out.
As the protagonist, Brian is a fascinating character to follow. It's a credit to co-writer/director Brian Goodman's guiding hand that his journey is so matter-of-fact, and therefore believable: Brian is in a perpetual struggle between a genuine desire to be a family man, earning the respect of his two kids and his wife, and succumbing to the lure of drugs and easy money. The film avoids cliché for most of its running time. Of course, the reason for Goodman enlightened perspective becomes clear in the included featurette, where it's revealed that What Doesn't Kill You is largely autobiographical. According to Wahlberg, Goodman handed him a draft of this script six months after getting out of prison, and the pair worked together to get it into shape.
Sadly, the final act of the movie doesn't quite live up to what came before. Whereas we've just spent the last hour and a bit watching these characters come close to making good choices then tragically choosing the wrong path, suddenly cooler heads prevail and we get an upbeat ending that's incongruous with the rest of the picture. Being a true story, What Doesn't Kill You the film comes across as trying to fit in as many details of the low part of Brian's life as possible, then careening through his change of heart at an unrealistic pace. It's too bad; this could've easily gone from good to great.
The 1080p transfer on this Blu-ray disc is a predictably solid effort from Sony. This is not a particularly colorful film, but the tonal range is lifelike and pleasing to the eye. Shadow detail is on par with other transfers of recent pictures, save for the manipulated palette of the opening scene. I noticed no edge enhancement or mosquito noise, nor was any evidence of excessive DNR present. Audio is natural, warm, and well-defined. Dialogue is well-balanced with the music, and no distortion or tearing is present, even when spontaneous shouting matches break out between characters. There's not a ton of activity in the surround channels, but the mix is appropriately immersive, and the music sounds great.
The aforementioned featurette, running about 18 minutes and giving a little insight into the production between exchanged platitudes, is joined in the special features lineup by 15 minutes of deleted and extended scenes (none of which are missed from the final cut) and an audio commentary with Goodman and Wahlberg.
What Doesn't Kill You is a solid rental, and it stands to develop a loyal fan base thanks to its authentic depiction of the life of crime. If it wasn't for the flawed ending, this could've been a real classic. The Blu-ray is beautiful to look at, and is certainly the best way to experience this movie.
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