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Non-Review Review: The Way Back

The Way Back is a paint-by-numbers redemption narrative, anchored in a tremendous central performance from Ben Affleck and enriched by its keen observations.

The basic plot of The Way Back will be familiar to most audience members. Jack is an alcoholic construction worker who is struggling to hold his life together. He has learned to do just enough to remain functional, but not so much that the people around him haven’t noticed his struggles. Jack stubbornly refuses any assistance offer by his family or by his ex-wife, believing that he has found something resembling an equilibrium. His addiction has pushed him into a slow and noticeable decline, but he has yet to implode.

He’s Backfleck.

Almost entirely by chance, Jack finds himself drafted back to his old high school, emotionally blackmailed into coaching their basketball team. Jack had played basketball as a teenager, but gave up on the sport in much the same way that he has recently withdrawn from the world around him. Inevitably, through his coaching, Jack finds himself connected with the lovable misfits that he takes under his wing. Jack guides these young men towards sporting glory, helping them (and himself) to find purpose in what they are doing.

It is all very conventional. There are very few surprises in The Way Back, which feels almost like one of those well-executed manoeuvres that Jack has his team execute out of the court. Everything lines up, all the pieces are moved with purpose, and the end result is never really in doubt. However, The Way Back elevates this well-worn formula with two secret weapons. Most obviously, Affleck finds an intersection of his traditional movie-star charisma with the baggage of his star persona. More subtly, the film is willing to just observe its characters, to let them be themselves.

Team works.

There is an undeniable inelegance to The Way Back that extends far beyond its flat-pack structure. Any savvy audience member will likely be able to predict how the film will unfold from the earliest scenes. Jack is barely managing to stay afloat before he is guilted into reluctantly coaching the team, but he finds renewed vigour in watching those players come together as a team. In guiding these misfits to glory, Jack also maps his own way out of his long dark midnight of the soul – both built on embracing the power of the chip on one’s shoulder.

There are elements of The Way Back that read almost like a plot checklist rather than a narrative. Of course Jack has to teach one of the players to take the sport seriously. Of course Jack has to visit the boy’s father at work to make an impassioned case for the teenager’s place on the team. Of course Jack takes this team of lovable losers and helps them over-perform beyond all expectations. Of course everything seems to be going relatively well for both Jack and the team, only for it all to implode when outside events intercede.

Time for reflection.

There’s almost something endearing in the bluntness with which The Way Back approaches its storytelling. At one point, the film relegates its awkward-but-necessary exposition to Jack’s adorable nephew, who clearly outlines the stakes of the next game (and the one after it) for the audience at home, “They kinda have to win. Because if they don’t win tonight, their next chance at getting into the play-offs is against Memorial, and Memorial’s the number one ranked team in the state.” No points for predicting from that line of exposition how the next two games unfold.

Still, this predictable approach isn’t a problem. Indeed, The Way Back works best in its smaller moments. While the film belongs to a familiar genre that includes everything from The Might Ducks to Remember the Titans to Dodgeball, there’s a compelling rawness to the film. This intimacy is surprising, considering that the last collaboration between lead actor Ben Affleck and director Gavin O’Connor was the pulpy-but-enjoyable airplane-paperback-thriller-of-a-movie The Accountant.

Courting controversy.

The Way Back offers a surprisingly candid account of Jack’s alcoholism, from the can of beer that he drinks in the shower to the vodka that he pours into a water bottle before a family gathering to the sunglasses he puts on at the construction site. There’s a sense in which Jack is doing just enough to buy the people around him plausible deniability, infusing the film with a sadness and melancholy that runs just a little deeper than a lot of similar films.

It’s to O’Connor’s credit as a director that he is willing to let the characters sit in silence. A lot of The Way Back hinges on what isn’t said, characters either talking around one another or avoiding confrontation. The most emotionally powerful sequences in The Way Back are often the quietest, such as a lunch that Jack shares with his ex-wife Angela. Angela unburdens herself to Jack and tries to connect with him. He refuses. “Say something, Jack,” she pleads, and the film trusts its performers enough to let the audience feel the same desire.

A window into the soul.

The Way Back is built around its star performance from Ben Affleck. Although the film features performances from a handful of veteran character actors like Al Madrigal or John Aylward, Affleck is the only marquee name in the project. The Way Back spends all of its time with Jack, often in solitude. That’s a lot of weight to put on a lead performance, but Affleck is more than capable of supporting it.

After all, The Way Back feels like it belongs as much to Affleck as to Jack. Affleck has had a troubled few years, both personally and professionally. The past year has seen Affleck becoming increasingly wary of his fame, shying away from lead roles and seemingly exiling himself to supporting turns in streaming films like The Last Thing He Wanted and Triple Frontier. With that in mind, The Way Back allows Affleck to use his star persona in an interesting way, cleverly playing off the baggage that he has accrued with audiences.

Father afield.

This is something that a lot of movie stars do, and some do very well. Tom Cruise plays out the tensions of his relationship with the audience in both The Edge of Tomorrow and Mission: Impossible – Fallout, while Will Smith’s anxieties about his fading stardom play out in films like Aladdin and Gemini Man. However, the indie aesthetic of The Way Back makes it a particularly interesting example, with Affleck himself often playing up autobiographical readings of his performance in the press around the film.

It’s an impressive turn, one that exists at the rare intersection of actor and movie star. As an actor, Affleck is capable of holding the audience’s attention in a low-key character drama for the better part of two hours. As a movie star, Affleck is able to fold the rawness of that performance back into a larger narrative that builds off the audience’s familiarity with his own personal life. It’s a fascinating sleight of hand on the part of Affleck and it is the engine that drives so much of The Way Back.

The Way Back is a fairly solid entry in a familiar genre, but it is rooted in a powerhouse central performance from an actor who might be charting his own path home.

2 Responses

  1. An illuminating review.. I’ll now track. It down.

    Regards Thom

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