A recovery film being touted as a crime thriller, What Doesn't Kill You suffers from the problem of most recovery stories in that it essentially has no final act. With the average character study this isn't really an issue, but for a film that starts off with an armored car robbery going badly awry (narration over a freeze-frame of a robber desperately blasting away tells us: "Never do armored cars"), the lack of satisfying denouement seriously damages what is otherwise a perfectly solid drama.
The movie is billed as the true-life story of the film's director/co-writer Brian Goodman, a South Boston guy who spent a few years in jail before getting his break in Ted Demme's Monument Ave. and showing up in several projects by Rod Lurie (a producer on this film). Being that Goodman made a career in Hollywood as the kind of square-jawed tough who got mowed down by the G-Men in the final reel of an old Republic serial, it's fitting that his first project as filmmaker would be this scrappy piece about his pre-Hollywood life as a second-string Southie hoodlum. Article continues below
Goodman's stand-in here is Brian (Mark Ruffalo), a minor-league enforcer for local gangster Pat (played with a grim zest by Goodman himself) who ignores his wife and kids while running the streets pulling minor scams and falling into serious addiction. His sidekick since childhood is Paulie (Ethan Hawke), a womanizing operator who nicely balances out Brian's self-destructive bleakness.
After the opening robbery, the rest of the film unfolds in an unglamorous flashback that forsakes low-rent crime-flick filler for a scrupulously observed take on working-class scraping-by. The script by Goodman, Paul T. Murray, and Donnie Wahlberg (who starred with Goodman early on and briefly shows up here as a mustached cop who has it in for Brian) emphasizes the friends' hand-to-mouth existence and their increasing frustration at having to depend on tight-fisted Pat for all their earnings. So when Pat gets shipped off to prison, it's not long before Brian and Paulie start dreaming up schemes on their own, which they have no intention of cutting Pat in on.
For a first-time director, Goodman shows himself to be not just an actors' filmmaker (no surprise there) but also a marvelously unfussy one when it comes to story and cinematography. While there are certainly moments where the drama feels preprogrammed, the naturalness of the performances -- in particular that by Hawke, who's quietly turning into one of his generation's most versatile and impressive actors -- and the wintry, sharp-angled look give the film an undeniable authenticity.
The momentum that What Doesn't Kill You picks up in its earlier scenes, though, has a harder time sustaining itself through later developments that give the film more of a seen-it quality. One of the hardest things for any artist to do, particularly in a time like now when the culture has been so saturated by addiction recovery tales, is to make audiences buy into yet another story of an addict fighting for redemption. To some extent the film's lack of energy in its last third is a fault of the screenplay, but mostly the blame falls upon Ruffalo's shoulders. As an actor, his clenched-jaw, neurotic pathos has started to become too much of a habit and it wears thin here, particularly in scenes he has to carry on his own without Hawke.
Though hardly a failure, What Doesn't Kill You is in the final measure definitely not what it could have been. However, Goodman's skill with his performers and sure-handed way with the camera shows that he's a director who deserves to be given other stories to tell, now that he's done with his own.