South Boston has replaced New York as Gangster Central in the movies lately, led by “Mystic River,” “The Departed” and “Gone Baby Gone” — all memorable movies. Watching them must be a walk down memory lane for actor/director Brian Goodman, who lived the South Boston gangster life before sobering up and switching careers; he now plays gangster characters in TV shows and movies. “What Doesn’t Kill You” is his story, told his way. It sort of functions as the “Goodfellas” of the South Boston gangster subgenre; instead of being about battles between bosses and cops, it’s a sobering look at the often desperate and mostly unglamorous life of a soldier in the ranks.
Mark Ruffalo, who I’ve mostly associated with cute and fluffy romantic comedies, establishes himself as an actor with some real gravitas and emotional power as Brian. Ethan Hawke, who keeps quietly turning in great, understated performances, is his partner in crime, Paulie. (Funny; Hawke has made as many or more sappy romances as Ruffalo, but I still associate him with films like “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” and “Lord of War.”) Brian has a wife played (horribly) by Amanda Peet and two sons. Paulie doesn’t. Brian has a drinking and drug problem; Paulie doesn’t. Someone is perfectly suited for the gangster life, and someone isn’t. I’ll let you figure it out.
Brian and Paulie are soldiers for Pat Kelly (played by writer/director/subject Brian Goodman, which is sort of weird – latent wish fulfillment maybe?) who recruits them when they’re about 12. Mostly they crack heads of guys who aren’t paying up, and rob drug dealers, which must be a dangerous business. It’s not a very satisfying or lucrative life, and when Kelly gets sent away for years, Paulie is eager to seize the opportunity to make some money for themselves. They are dogged by a cop played by Donnie Wahlberg (doing his best impression of his much more talented brother, Mark) who finally busts them stealing a truckload of TVs.
They spend their requisite time in prison, but while there, Brian starts to listen to the guys at AA. And to his wife, who can’t believe what a shmuck she’s married, but with two boys, doesn’t see that she can exactly leave, either. When he gets out and decides to reform, it’s not easy There are all kinds of money problems, but the biggest problem is he knows exactly where to get the money he needs. It must be tough to see a hundred ways to make a quick buck illegally and unable to find a single way to make a buck legitimately. “We’re just playing the cards we were dealt,” Paulie argues. But Brian is holding out for a new deck.
“What Doesn’t Kill You” lacks the tension-generating central plot line of most gangster movies — the heists and gun battles are terribly quick and pragmatic affairs. And though I compared it to “Goodfellas” and it feels like it’s goals are similar, it lacks the period glamour and sure-handed direction of that film. So a lot rests on the performances of Ethan Hawke and Mark Ruffalo. The two find a remarkable rapport, and really come across and guys who’ve had each others’ backs for as long as either can remember. Hawke creates a vivid character while remaining in the wings, never demanding much time and attention. And Ruffalo successfully carries the movie without ever chewing scenery or getting too emotional. It’s a performance worth noting from an actor worth remembering.
- if you liked “The Departed,” “Gone Baby Gone,” and “Mystic River.”
- if you think “Goodfellas” was a better movie than “The Godfather.”
- if, when I mentioned Mark Ruffalo, you thought, “Wasn’t he in “13 Going on 30″ and that movie with Reese Witherspoon?”
- if you don’t like grit and violence and gangster movies to begin with.
- if you like the cops vs. gangsters element of gangster movies, and don’t want to ponder the hard lives of the little guys. Screw ’em.
- if, when I mentioned Ethan Hawke, you thought, “Oh! I loved him in “Before Sunset!”