I just watched the film, “What Doesn’t Kill You,” with Mark Ruffalo and Ethan Hawke. Ruffalo and Hawke play childhood friends (Brian and Paulie) who get involved in Boston’s organized crime scene, landing them both in prison.
In addition to the obvious victims of their crimes, Brian leaves behind a few other equally important victims – his wife and two children.
His relationship with his wife is frayed before he even goes to jail as a result of his drug habit, violent outbursts, and lack of involvement in his children’s lives. When he leaves prison after a 5-year sentence, his wife seems willing to give him a second chance. Unfortunately, he starts falling into the same habits again, and is on the brink of completely ruining the second chance he has been given.
Paulie is now out of jail, too, and they are about to attempt an armored car heist. But shortly before the day of the heist, Brian has a conversation with his older son, Mark, who is about 10-years-old. Mark is sitting on the front step of their house, looking kind of sad, and Brian tells him that he is sorry for messing up. He tells his son that he is very proud of the man he is becoming, and then asks him what he can do to be a better father. His son simply says, “Don’t leave us again.”
Where do I start?
First, if you know any 10-year-old boys, you know that they are often not very talkative, and especially not when it comes to emotional situations like this. So, for Mark to make this admission this way is very powerful.
Second, we often overcomplicate what it means to be a good father. Sure, there are skills that are needed, and habits that must be formed. But the most important thing -- the thing that children (the real experts on what fathers need to do) often articulate best -- is simply dad’s presence.
This is not to be underestimated. In a world where there are so many things competing for our attention, and in which there are so many temptations to succumb to, especially for men, it is easy to forget just how much a dad’s presence in the home communicates to his children.
A dad’s presence tells his children that there is nothing else in the world more important to him than them. Roland Warren, NFI’s president, calls it “thereness.” No one else can “do this” for you. The best role model or mentor in the world can’t show children what it means for their own father to actually be there.
The night before the heist is to take place, Brian envisions himself getting caught and being sent back to jail. After talking to his son, he knows this is not an option. He tells Paulie he can’t do it. Fortunately, Paulie understands.
The movie then closes with a scene of Brian sitting in the stands at his son’s football game. Mark makes a good play on the field, and then looks into the crowd and sees his dad stand up and raise his fist in the air to cheer him on. Cut to black.
What doesn’t kill you? Being the kind of father your children need you to be, that’s what.