It's possibly unkind to say it, but watching What Doesn't Kill You, a crime-and-redemption saga based on the real-life experiences of director and co-writer Brian Goodman, I couldn't help but keep coming back to the observation that the simple fact a story is real doesn't make that story interesting. Starring Mark Ruffalo and Ethan Hawke as lifelong friends on the mean streets of South Boston, What Doesn't Kill You makes it clear early on that the only reason you can't call Ruffalo and Hawke career criminals is the fact it's not much of a career. The two are always broke, always on the hustle, always worried about the next score, always kicking money up to the local crime boss who demands a piece of the action.
The film opens with a big job — an armored car robbery – and flashes back to the events over the years that led up to it — the petty thefts, the armed robberies, the spiral into drugs, the squabbles between Ruffalo and his long-suffering wife Amanda Peet. And the fact of the matter is that while Hawke and Ruffalo are as good as they always are (Hawke, frankly, seems to be getting more interesting as an actor the older and more beaten-up he gets), there's nothing in What Doesn't Kill You that we haven't' seen many, many times before. The plot's pure Scorsese, with a Hallmark Channel Movie-of-the-week happy ending; the South Boston setting straight out of The Departed or Gone Baby Gone or the lesser-known (but excellent) Denis Leary film Monument Ave.
The direction of the film is good, not great; the scenes have a hand-held intimacy to them, one that feels more like eavesdropping than anything else. The action isn't shot like action — it's flat, unaffected, simple: A punch to the face, a series of gunshots, a stumbling run to avoid capture or death. And the performances are, again, mostly better than the material; Ruffalo, Hawke and Peet's accents are all broader than their characters. And yes, Ruffalo gets to transform his life — from tough thug to dedicated dad — but, again, the fact he's playing a character based on the director makes the happy ending for his character a bit anticlimactic.
And all of this sounds horrible, because the movie's so clearly based on Brian Goodman's life that any review of the film feels like a review of who he is and how far he's come — but it's not, really. And there are a few interesting scenes in the film, to be sure — Ruffalo, released from prison after five years, can't quite comprehend how much his neighborhood has gentrified while he's been away, staring out the window of the family car at the changed world. But too many other scenes — robberies, bar fights, first hits of crack and point-blank gunplay — are scenes we've seen before.
The DVD's extras are good, albeit not good enough to make up for the "been there, done that" feel of the film. There's commentary from Goodman and co-writer Donnie Wahlberg, a series of deleted and alternate scenes and a making-of featurette. If there had been something new in What Doesn't Kill You — beyond the ultimate positive message of sobriety, dignity and family that Ruffalo comes around to eventually — it might have felt more fresh and less familiar, more like an experience and les like an experience we've had before. Don't misunderstand me; I acknowledge and respect the journey Brian Goodman made to get away from crime, drugs, drink and violence to work towards forgiveness for his crimes. That doesn't mean I necessarily have to respect the film of that journey, though, and I can't quite bring myself to forgive What Doesn’t Kill You for its crime of being dull.