By Jen Chaney
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 28, 2009 12:00 AM
When "What Doesn't Kill You" quietly arrived in theaters last December, the story of a man (Mark Ruffalo) attempting to shed his lifelong ties to crime and addiction earned some positive reviews and a few whispers in the blogosphere about potential Oscar buzz. So how come you have never heard of it?
Blame it on bankruptcy. Yari Film Group, the studio that distributed the film, filed for Chapter 11 in December, and that meant a wider release for "What Doesn't Kill You" -- which opened in a handful of theaters in New York and L.A. -- was nixed. Now the Mark Ruffalo and Ethan Hawke Movie No One Ever Saw is making what is, essentially, its debut today on DVD ($24.96) and Blu-ray ($34.95). (Another well-received Yari release, "Nothing But the Truth," traveled a similar path and also arrives on DVD and Blu-ray today; Ann Hornaday has weighed in with her review of that Valerie Plame-esque tale.)
"What Doesn't Kill You" treads on what has become extremely familiar urban territory in recent years: the mean, crime-riddled streets of Boston, Mass. That setting has provided the backdrop for so many films focused on the seedier side of life -- including "Mystic River," "The Departed" and "Gone Baby Gone" -- that it's nearly impossible for actor and first-time writer/director Brian Goodman to avoid tripping and falling into the pitfalls of the familiar. And admittedly, he does that more than a few times, giving us haven't-we-seen-this-before? depictions of our protagonist lighting a crack pipe, screaming at his wife ("This is who I am!") or wielding a gun in the hope that he'll score some cash from an armored car. Yeah, there is enough "grit" here to make most viewers feel a need to brush and floss after the movie ends.
Still, an undeniable undercurrent of honesty runs through "What Doesn't Kill You" and that makes it worth at least renting. Goodman makes it clear from the beginning that the story he is telling is true; in fact, as the DVD's extras explain, the drama is an autobiographical account of the director's own struggles with alcoholism and criminal behavior. But what makes elements of the narrative actually feel real are those buzzed-about performances by Ruffalo and Hawke, who deliver strong turns as childhood friends as loyal to each other as they are to their lucrative and illegal odd jobs. Hawke's work is particularly noble since it represents a complete 180-degree turn from what he did in another gritfest, 2007's "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead." In that film, he conspired in crime while attempting to mask a growing, jangly nervousness; here, his jumpiness is all confidence and masculine bravado.
Both the DVD and Blu-ray disc come with 13 deleted scenes, few of which reveal interesting insights into the plot or the characters. The commentary track by Goodman and Donnie Wahlberg, who co-wrote the screenplay and appears in the movie as a cop that Ruffalo can't seem to shake, is filled with chummy banter between the Boston natives but doesn't quite qualify as crucial listening. The one must-view extra is "Makes You Stronger: The Making of 'What Doesn't Kill You'," a featurette in which Goodman explains how he spent more than a decade molding this story, one he first scrawled onto a 37-cent notepad, into his directorial debut.
His tale is a reminder that every film, even the ones that don't get wide theatrical releases or earn armloads of Academy Awards, means the world to the people that made it. And it's another reason why watching "What Doesn't Kill You" feels like an important act, a way to proclaim that thoughtful movies deserve to be seen, regardless of how they make it to the masses.