If Brian Goodman's autobiographical South Boston crime drama What Doesn't Kill You hadn't arrived so soon after The Departed, Gone Baby Gone, and the New York-set Before The Devil Knows You're Dead, it might've seemed a lot fresher, and maybe even revelatory. Instead, Goodman's story of two low-level hoods–drug-addicted family man Mark Ruffalo and hard-bitten schemer Ethan Hawke–has to win an audience that's seen this story a lot lately. And for all Goodman's admirable low-rent realism, What Doesn't Kill You doesn't try very hard to impress. Goodman resists the temptation to glamorize or sentimentalize his upbringing, to the extent that his film risks grinding viewers down.
Because it's steeped in the language and ethos of recovery, What Doesn't Kill You dwells on its heroes' duplicity. Ruffalo and Hawke lie to their families about their work, and they lie to their bosses about how much money they're taking in, using the self-justification that they have mouths to feed–an excuse that rings hollow coming from the crack-addled Ruffalo. After the whole crew gets nabbed, they arrange to conduct business in prison during AA meetings, but Ruffalo soon starts buying into the program, and comes out of jail cleaned up. Yet because Hawke took a harder charge to get Ruffalo released quicker, Ruffalo is obliged to return to the rackets when Hawke is released, even if it costs him his wife, his son, and his sobriety.
Goodman doesn't allow even a hint of postmodernism or self-consciousness to creep into What Doesn't Kill You, and though the movie's various heists and shootouts are gripping, they aren't especially kinetic or stylish. This is a very matter-of-fact film. In an early scene, younger versions of the crooks nonchalantly agree to start delivering envelopes for their local kingpin, and Goodman chooses not to cut from that scene to shots of them living large, but to a shot of one of them sleeping in a ratty hallway, waiting for his girlfriend to lead him down to a dank basement mattress where they can be alone. Goodman doesn't attempt to make any of this look pretty, or even "colorful." Even if it puts people off, he keeps his Boston cold, damp, gray, and dangerous.