THE WAY BACK ½
R, 108 mins.
2020, R, 108 mins.
Ben Affleck as Jack Cunningham / Janina Gavankar as Angela / Michaela Watkins as Beth / da'Vinchi as Devon / Childress / Hayes MacArthur as Eric / Rachael Carpani as Diane
Written and directed by Gavin O'Connor
Not to be confused with the 2013 coming of age film THE WAY, WAY BACK, Gavin O'Connor's sports redemption drama THE WAY BACK has taken on a whole new personal level as far as star Ben Affleck is concerned.
The 47-year-old actor recently and publicly came clean about his own decades-long bout with alcoholism, something that derailed his marriage and nearly shut down his career. Newly clean and sober, Affleck in THE WAY BACK takes on the role of a former high school basketball star that has become a down on his luck fortysomething recluse whose own addiction to booze has tainted nearly every facet of his life, leading to the destruction of his marriage.
To say that this film is deeply meta would be a vast
O'Connor is no
stranger to sports films about (a) misfits banding together to overcome
odds and (b) struggling families torn apart and then brought together through the
healing power of sports. He
made the single best hockey film of all time in 2004's MIRACLE,
which showcased the most miraculous U.S. men's hockey team victory against
the then unbeatable Russians at the 1980 Olympics.
He also made the terribly underrated WARRIOR,
which focused on the fractured relationship between two brothers and their
father, with all of them having ties to the world of mixed martial arts. After these films and now THE WAY BACK the director can now
proudly claim to be working on an upper echelon apart from his peers as
far as this genre is concerned. That's
not to say that his latest effort doesn't adhere to some sports film
conventions, but it does manage to find clever and subversive ways to
unexpectedly subvert them all the same.
And Affleck (re-teaming with O'Connor after THE
ACCOUNTANT) has simply not been this good in a role in years, whose past history with addiction, no doubt,
informed his textured, finely understated, and thoroughly authentic
To be sure, any
reasonably level headed viewer can probably detect that THE WAY BACK is
made up of overtly familiar parts: the struggling team of nobodies that
no one believes in; the spiritually fallen coach that's hit hard times and
needs a win in more ways than one; and the notion of sports as a catalyst
to change all of the above for the better. However, O'Connor adeptly twists
and turns our expectations and familiarity of this genre upside down on
their heads (especially during its closing sections) and manages to infuse
the film with a real gritty verisimilitude.
As the film opens we meet Jack (Affleck), a lonely and introverted
construction worker that spends all of his waking hours outside of the job
medicating himself in bars. When
he's not there he's polishing off beers by the dozen all alone at home.
We learn that this sad sack was once happily married to Angela
(Janina Gavankar), but it eroded due to his self-abusing ways.
Now, Jack is riddled with depression and alcoholism, a lethal
combination if their ever was one.
Things were once
on the up and up for Jack. 25
years earlier he was a sensationally skilled high school basketball player
that was destined for college and pro greatness, but a horrid family past
dealing with absentee father issues led to him abandoning the sport as a
way to piss off his old man. There's
some light at the end of his tunnel when his old high school reaches out and asks for him to fill the
head coaching vacancy for the boy's
basketball team. The team, of course, is a clan of athletic losers that barely
can string two wins together, and Jack initially tries to find every
reason he can to turn down the offer.
Yet, the allure of the game calls to him, so he begrudgingly
accepts, hoping to inspire in these troubled kids an opportunity to find
the buried and untapped greatness that resides within.
After a series of failures on and off the court, Jack seems himself
headlining a winning team, but just when he's starting to find some level
of personal redemption, his alcoholic ways come back to haunt him at the
worst time, leaving everything he's worked so hard to build with this team
One thing that
THE WAY BACK does exceedingly well to score points with viewers is that
it's not some achingly soft-pedaled, Disney-fied feel-good inspirational
sports drama. O'Connor's goes
for bleak nihilism when the film requires it and reminds the audience that
alcoholism is not PG rated disease. Jack is portrayed early on as an incomparably self-loathing
man that constantly numbs his inner pains with whatever booze he can get
his hands on. He's simply a
wasted mess, and THE WAY BACK should be applauded for thrusting us head
first into the toxic tailspin down from grace that Jack is suffering from. He's isolated himself from just about everyone that's cared
for him and there appears to be no end in sight to him giving up the
bottle. This film is most
certainly not easy to watch in the early stages, but it accurately
highlights the damning and frightening daily grind that addicts go through
and how every new day just blurs into the next in terms of habitual
film's bleakness is how O'Connor manages to make the dynamic between the
team and Jack feel lived-in and real.
The teenage players have impressionable and vulnerable minds, but
are definitely rough around the edges and drop nearly as many F-bombs as
their coach (the film earns its R rating). The script does a solid job of
showing the gradual de-icing of tension between these lads and their new
aggressive minded coach, who absolutely takes zero shit from any of them
and freely speaks his mind (one of the better running gags in the film is
how Jack's Catholic high school superiors try to curb his coarse language
on the court during games, which is an awfully tough request to ask of
most competitive coaches). The
team has skills, but little in the way of actual guidance to allow for the
activation of them. THE
WAY BACK relays their early defeats on the court in a compelling manner:
Instead of showing a highlight montage of the games in question,
O'Connor simply foregoes that, freeze frames on an image from the game,
and relays the losing score on the screen.
Watching this team lose horribly is almost too much to bare witness
Of course, THE
WAY BACK - as is the case with nearly every single other inspirational
underdog sports film - contains team defeats being turned into team
victories, the coach and his players growing to like and respect each
other, and with all of it culminating with the big, proverbial game at the
end. None of this is
unpredictable in the slightest in THE WAY BACK.
There's even a moment where O'Connor seems to be ending the film in
a highly clichéd visual manner that usually cues the end credits...and
then something intriguing happens. The
story abruptly shifts gears and progresses down some unexplored and
unanticipated avenues that highlights why this film and its
build up is really not altogether about basketball at all. Instead, THE WAY BACK becomes more about valiantly attempting
to overcoming a soul crushing disease that can disappear and re-appear
with little warning or reason. Jack
has minor triumphs throughout the story with his victories On the court,
and basketball absolutely acts - through most of the film - as a beacon of
positive change for him. Still,
THE WAY BACK doesn't end like a typical sports drama at all, and
O'Connor's willingness to challenge our own preconceived knowledge of how
these genre films unfold is to his credit.
By the time it all reaches a level of finality with a pitch
perfectly envisioned closing shot I came to realize that Jack's problems
and attempts to heal are bigger than, well, the "big game."
Oscar winning Affleck is a far greater actor than he usually gets credit
for, and he proves here that when he's married to just the right role and
material he can be as authoritative and commanding as any on-screen star.
It would have been easy for Affleck's work here to veer into
overdone melodrama to the point where he telegraphs every large emotional
spectrum of this broken man. Rather
wisely, he plays the dramatic beats with assured and reserved strokes, and
accurately evokes a man that's sometimes in so much mental and physical
pain that he can barely muster a word.
Affleck is reliably fired up as an on-court coaching presence
that's usually required for these mentor roles, but outside of the game
Jack is shown as anguished and defeated, and all of this is sustained by
the actor's low key and understated choices here.
It's not the type of flashy Oscar bait work that attracts Academy
attention, but Affleck gives a nomination worthy performance here.
And the fact that this role so intimately plays off all of his own
highly covered tabloid indiscretions off camera, it just makes THE WAY
BACK that much more compulsively engaging.
O'Connor's execution isn't completely fool proof. Some subplots feel undernourished, like that of the soft spoken star player with a family chip on his shoulder (well played by Brandon Wilson) that lacks athletic drive because of his own bitter relationship with his father, one that Jack can relate to (this storyline isn't embellished as much as its should have been). Then there's the fact that the rest of the players built around Jack aren't as fully realized either (they're all given stock character types and traits, but not much more). And I think the film could have used more of Affleck and Gavankar on screen together (she kind of appears and disappears when the script finds it convenient). Having said that, THE WAY BACK is as solid of a sports drama as any recently, one that thanklessly doesn't embrace mawkish soap opera elements that usually typifies the well worn genre, not to mention that it has a dramatic veracity largely thanks to Affleck's tour de force, but intensely internalized performance. And to use a basketball metaphor, O'Connor takes his creative team to the court here, but doesn't lazily adhere to the genre playbook.