It’s been darn near impossible to escape news of Ben Affleck lately; his very public battles with very personal demons (and professional “failures”) coincide so closely to his character in The Way Back that I’d be remiss without mentioning it. It’s guaranteed to color how you approach the film. The press rounds he’s been making feel more like an exploration of his life’s struggles than advertising for the film. How much more of the latter is it than the former? I have no way to truly tell, but if I let the film inform my answer then I have to lean towards honesty and healing.
At the risk of sounding insensitive, I have to say that Ben Affleck is perfect for the role of Jack Cunningham. One could argue that this is his best performance—Affleck is usually playing some degree of Affleck—but it’s clearly his most emotional. It’s not emotion for acting’s sake either; it’s a real kind of rawness to see a man succumbing to addiction: you get the peaks and the valleys. You get the “I’m fine,” and the “I’ll do better next time,” and the “give me one more chance.” You get the incomprehensible decisions. Those are staples of these stories. The tropes. We expect them. But the internal struggle is what The Way Back portrays so much better than other films like it. Jack offers generic excuses when it comes to his alcoholism, but only because he numbs himself from a truth more painful than he thinks he can bear—Jack is also the one his Alma Mater calls to coach their basketball team.
This is the kind of plot that screams melodrama (and in less capable hands it would be just that). Gavin O’Connor has a knack for making a compelling story out of underdog situations and I applaud him for the subtle subversion in a film like this. He did the same for Warrior, and even found a way to ground The Accountant. I don’t see The Way Back as inspirational: I see it more as cautionary, designed to cut away at judgment and foster pathos and empathy. The fires in these people’s lives didn’t light themselves and they won’t be extinguished by winning a handful of league games. I respect O’Connor for understanding that and reflecting it in his story.
That brings us back to Mr. Affleck, doesn’t it? There’s an obvious synergy that exists in viewing the film. He needed this project for his own sake, and the project needed him to elevate it by revisiting those dark places. I wish I could separate the final product from the production history but I can’t, so I won’t pretend to. I can be objective enough to say that The Way Back is merely a good film. I wouldn’t even bat an eye if Affleck didn’t receive a nomination. It’s a straightforward movie to a fault. All that baggage though? The context in which the film is presented to us? I couldn’t help but sit in the theater and root for both Ben and Jack. The Way Back is a lifelong road and my hope is that they never stop moving forward.
Recommendation: GO SEE IT!