TL;DR – A film that feels more personal than I have seen in a while and at the very least a loot messier
Score – 3.5 out of 5 stars
Post-Credit Scene – There is no post-credit scene
There are many things that make reviewing The Way Back a difficult prospect. Part of that comes from intentional narrative devices that help the film in some ways and hinder it in others. Also, this is just a really raw film at times looking at a subject material that is both important but also deeply relevant to the lead actor. Which gets us into the realm of how much of this is performance and how much of this is reality thrown up on the screen. All of these are difficult things, but they were because in many respects this is a difficult film.
So to set the scene, Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) spends his days alone, even when he is surrounded by people. He wakes up with a beer, he showers with a beer, he drinks on the way to work, he hides booze while he is working, and he drinks himself silly when he gets home. After Thanksgiving dinner with his sister Beth (Michaela Watkins) who is clearly concerned that he is not seeing anyone after his marriage with Angela (Janina Gavankar) fell apart he arrives home to find an odd message on his phone. His old school wants him to come back and be the new basketball coach.
First, we need to explore the good and by the good, I mean the uncomfortable. Of course, this is the acting of Ben Affleck who headlines this film in more ways than one. This is very much his film, in that he is playing the central character and it is also this is covering subject matter like divorce and alcoholism that is quite personal to him. This is clearly apparent at the start where you see the brutal reality of someone who has become dependent on alcohol to make it through the day. Those moments when Jack is interacting with the kids, and the other priests throughout the film are completely charming and you can’t help but get caught up with it all. When Jack starts dropping f-bombs on the court in front of Dan (Al Madrigal) and Father Whelan (Jeremy Radin) was both hilarious but also really telling because it is the only thing bumping this up to an American-R rating, so it was a real choice to keep it in.
Where the film does not work as well is in the pacing, especially at the start. This is a film that takes a long time to get going, part of that is just taking too long to ground the film, one shower-beer shot was enough to let us know. But also part of it was the way they structured the film for some reveals we will talk about next. To go with this, another area where the film really needed some work was with the banter between the cast. I know they were setting up an awkward/uncomfortable vibe but you can do that and still have clever dialogue.
Now, I need to discuss some of the structural aspects of the film, but that is going to move us into [SPOILER] territory. This is a film that actively preys on you as an audience and how you perceive information in a narrative. At the start of the film, Jack is asked if he has any kids and he says no, which is both true and also an obscuration. But you as an audience take it at face value only to be slapped in the face by the truth later on. It was really effective in the moment, as that dawning revelation becomes clear. Unfortunately, while it works in the moment, because the film spends most of its runtime hiding it in the background, they didn’t provide the groundwork that you needed to make what happens in the third act work. To go along with this, in many respects this is a film that is presented as a standard redemption-through-coaching narrative and there is even a moment when the film freeze-frames right at the moment when you would expect that kind of film to end. However, this is not the end of the film, but rather the end of the second act. I am personally not a fan of films that present themselves as one thing when they actually want to be something else. It is a really fine balancing act, which most films can’t pull off, but I think The Way Back did.
In the end, do we recommend The Way Back? Yes, yes we would. It is a hard film to watch at times, indeed I don’t think it ever gets easy. However, there are some really powerful performances, it is dealing with themes that we need to explore, and it might be some of Ben Affleck’s best work. If you liked The Way Back, we would also recommend Mercenary.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of The Way Back
Directed by – Gavin O’Connor
Written by – Brad Ingelsby
Music by – Rob Simonsen
Cinematography by – Eduard Grau
Edited by – David Rosenbloom
Production/Distribution Companies – Warner Bros. Pictures & Bron Creative
Starring – Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Michaela Watkins, Janina Gavankar, Glynn Turman, Brandon Wilson, Hayes MacArthur, Rachael Carpani, Marlene Forte, Lukas Gage, Melvin Gregg, Charles Lott Jr, Will Ropp, Jeremy Radin, Fernando Luis Vega, Chris Bruno, Da’Vinchi, Rachael Carpani, Todd Stashwick, Jeremy Ratchford, Sal Velez Jr., Yeniffer Behrens & Herbert Morales
Rating – Australia: M; Canada: 14A; Germany: na; New Zealand: M; United Kingdom: 15; United States: R