Like the dun-snow covered streets of Boston that this Irish Mob biopic depicts, What Doesn’t Kill You trods a well-walked path. Not merely just the mobster “coming of thuggage” drama that comprises 35 percent of all frat-film collections, but more specifically the Southie Irish mob of Boston. I’m not even talking about an old path. This comes on the heels of Mystic River and The Departed. Since those did pretty goddamn good at the Academy Awards, you’d be hard pressed to blame the makers of What Doesn’t Kill You. It’s quite a good film, well played and portrayed, with a gritty realism that far surpasses its “R-less” predecessors, but it falls apart in the end under a morality-play pathos and awkward pacing. While it has a promising start, it’s beholden to its biographical roots, and therefore has to stick to the rather lackluster finale, which feels like watching the eleventh hour stragglers staggering down Comm Ave well after the Boston Marathon has ended. By the end, you find yourself scratching your head and wondering why you’re supposed to be watching this.
What Doesn’t Kill You tells the story of Brian Reilly (Mark Ruffalo), a lifelong goon for the South Boston Irish Mob and his plummet through drugs, alcohol, and petty crime. Reilly runs with Paulie (Ethan Hawke), a charismatic and tempermental fella, who keeps angling for more than the meager scraps thrown at him by his boss Pat Kelly. The Mob’s not as strong armed as it used to be, with most of the crews being decimated by snitches and a complete inability to shakedown and extort like they used to. Brian and Paulie are hatchet men, mostly roughing up local businessmen and drug dealers for their cut of the money when they aren’t out pinching stuff from the backs of trucks. Brian becomes increasingly distant from his childhood sweetheart and beleaguered wife Stacy (Amanda Peet), who stands by her man despite the constant wee hour stumble-ins coked up and drunk. After a 5-year stint in prison, Brian joins AA with the help of a former mob guy Sully. The movie then becomes about Brian struggling to make an honest living for his family while resisting the allure of the quick fix of crime. The movie’s based on the life of director and co-star Brian Goodman. He co-wrote the script with Paul T. Murray and Donnie Wahlberg, who moonlights as the detective bearing a grudge against Brian. Donnie Wahlberg has become the go-to guy for a badge and a trenchcoat, and the movie completes the production’s obligation to the Hollywood Sinn Fein by involving at least one Wahlberg or Affleck and featuring a role by either Colm Meaney, Denis Leary, or Lenny Clarke. (It’s the last one.)
The accents aren’t garish, but then again, I didn’t get physically sick over the voice work in Good Will Hunting or The Departed. On the scale of one to Dorchester, they’re ranking well above a Mystic River. Peet hits a little heavy on her “FAWTHA” screeches, but you can forgive her because she manages to play a beset wife without once coming off as shrewish. It seems Stacy stays with Brian because she genuinely loves him, even when she wants to walk away. Once Peet flashed the goods in The Whole Nine Yards, we all grew bored with her. With a little work and keeping up with her classes at the Amy Ryan school of acting, she can have a few decent middle innings to her career. I’m normally a huge Mark Ruffalo fan, but his semi-retarded take on Brian is off-putting. He spends most of the movie in a stupor with a pooched-out lip, a statue of Fred Flintstone. It’s Vincent D’Onofrio lite, and Ruffalo’s a better actor than that. He’s spot on for about half the film, when he’s given opportunity to emote, but it’s the quiet moments when he adopts this neutral mode of dullard that it gets tedious. Ethan Hawke is outstanding as Paulie, where he’s essentially given the chance to 180 on his work in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and play a foaming maniac. What makes Paulie work is not his seething rage but his quieter moments. His compassionate side — taking the heat immediately for Brian so he can see his kids, telling a conquest not to fall in love with a bad boy, his boyish charm in general — add a depth of character that elevates Paulie from the den of mob gunmonkey.
The film is oddly paced, leaping in fits and starts through the plot. Goodman wants to prove his Boston cred, so he peppers the film with tons of distance shots of the tenements of South Boston and various other highlights of the city. Everything is covered in snow, which blankets the city for the 10 months of winter that typically befall it — except for summer when the thermostat gets cranked to a ballsweating 110 and the elderly burst into flames on the Common. (See, establishing cred.) Even though the story flips past certain events, Brian knows what makes for amusing stuff. There are plenty of terrific moments that could only have come from having lived them or hearing from people who did. We see Brian and some guys unloading goods from a truck while Paulie duct tapes the driver, gently propping him against the side of the truck. The cops interrogate the driver. Moments later, he walks into the bar where Brian and Paulie are drinking, and he starts cracking wise with them while Paulie pays him off and sets him up with a beer. There’s an insane gunfire sequence where a hooded stranger walks up to one of the guys outside a bar and fires at him. The entire scene is shot at night and in a wide angle, so all we see is this hooded guy blasting away with a .22 and the guy trying to defend himself. It’s so weird, but far more realistic than the typical gunvolleys that fill cinema.
I expected the project to be some sort of narcissistic self-congratulatory handshake, but it came across much more like Shattered Glass. My biggest beef was that I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to react to the final project. Should I feel sorry for these two schlubs who feel circumstantially forced into a life of crime, or should I admire them? As I said, the film takes a weird dive once Brian goes to AA in prison and meets Sully. It almost cages the film in this entire fifth step, where Goodman is addressing his wrongs to a larger audience. It stops being about the two characters and shifts to Brian’s struggle to stay with his family. His son actually tells him all he wants is for him to stay sober and not leave them again. It’s almost like a rehab story: a million little pieces of shamrock.
But here’s the catch. I knew Brian Goodman was also in his own movie, and I had narrowed him down to two characters. There’s Sully, the sponsor and former mob heavy who has now embraced AA and who essentially acts as the saving grace for Brian. Then, there’s Pat Kelly, the mob leader for Paulie and Brian, who ends up going to prison before them for a murder we see him commit earlier in the movie. I kept going back and forth on who I thought Goodman would be. Turns out, he was Kelly. Instead of taking the role of the AA sponsor who saved Brian’s life and helped him find a wiser and more blue-collar noble path, Goodman chooses to play the devil who led them astray. That left me curious as to what I’m supposed to glean from this film.
Ultimately, it’s not an offensively bad film, just one we’ve watched before. But the Irish Mob is starting to get more press lately, and Boston’s growing as a locale. It gives A-list actors a chance to drop R’s because allegedly Southie is the new Shakespeare. Now that all the roles on American television are being played by Brits, Aussies, and Canucks, we’ve got to find a new confounding accent to throw at them. I can’t wait until all the West Memphis Three movies start up. That’ll be wicked fucking awesome, y’all.
Brian Prisco is a burger whisperer from the hills and valleys of North Hollywood, by way of the fiery streets of Philadelphia. When not casting his slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in an attempt to make sense of this crazy little thing called love, he can be found with his nose in a book in an attempt to make a grown woman cry when he beats her in the Cannonball Read. You can pick a fight with him via email at .com or decipher his crazy ramblings at The Gospel According to Prisco. Hail Discordia!
What Doesn't Kill You / Brian Prisco
Film Reviews | December 16, 2008 | Comments ()