Calling Brian Goodman’s well-observed, episodic crime drama/character study a South Boston Irish Mean Streets isn’t too far off, but it sells the actor-turned-director’s feature debut somewhat short. Despite its ultrafamiliar setup, What Doesn’t Kill You (original title: Real Men Cry) makes a virtue of directness and simplicity.
No rank mimic, Goodman has the sense to hang the frisson of his autobiographical tale on the actions and faces of his career-crook protagonists rather than on baroque Scorsesean logophilia or labyrinthine Michael Mann–esque plotting. The narrative couldn’t be more straightforward: Lifelong pals Brian and Paulie (Ruffalo and Hawke), tired of pulling jobs for a neighborhood tosser, strike out on their own, end up in prison and diverge upon their release. A local cop (coscreenwriter Wahlberg) and Brian’s wife (Peet) hang around for extra focus.
Granted, What Doesn’t Kill You pivots on pampered, charismatic movie stars (including Goodman himself) pretending to be hard-asses, and the story rambles and ultimately fizzles. But its modesty and understated detail lend moral weight to the mooks’ deeds, and make the burgeoning self-awareness and—you guessed it—redemption of one of them actually feel earned.