On the surface this is a cut and dry sports movie but as the film progresses and the plot unravels it’s about way more than just sports. The main character was a star trying to forget his or her former glory while others around him or her won’t let them forget. Just when he thought he was out; they pull him back in, reluctantly that is. In the case of “The Way Back” what we get is deeper than that, an emotional thrill ride none of us were fully expecting to be on. What these movies hide from us in the first act normally is the once famed star athlete has demons they fail at burying.
This film right off the bat bares its soul through Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) to a degree. All we know of him is the raging functioning alcoholic as he is miserably working his day job handing heavy machinery (do not attempt). Once he gets off work his traveler mug is filled with vodka as he drives home – endangering not only himself but everyone around him. His sister Beth (Michaela Watkins) is concerned for Jack’s wellbeing informing him that his ex-wife and friends are too.
Receiving that call from his alma mater to coach the varsity team, Jack reluctantly accepts the job drinking the night away until he falls into a drunk sleep. The team hasn’t made the playoffs since Jack played as he gave up playing ball and a full scholarship to one of the best programs in the country. This is an emotionally driven role for Ben given his past real life battles with alcoholism – it’s a disease that can control the person in a parasitic way depriving them of everything they’ve ever cared for. Ben is vulnerable and fragile throughout the story’s progression – like he’s playing himself and we’re just watching it through an impartial point of view.
As the plot progresses and we find out the reason for his disease, your heart breaks for this man and all he’s had to endure. All his mistakes are his fault – he broke up his marriage, failing his than wife Angela (Janina Gavankar) and son Michael. Getting back into the gym and the sport of basketball was probably the best band-aid for Jack, he was able to have a more positive outlet to focus on. Yes, he has anger issues – animated anger issues learning how to coach high schoolers while not trying to get kicked out of each game.
At the same time, his passion for the game peeks through the broken pieces of the man he used to be. He genuinely cares about the group of kids especially Brandon (Brandon Wilson) who he drives home after practice each night. He doesn’t want to self-destruct anymore but he’s too proud to ask for the help he deserves.
The sports aspect of the story draws you in if you are a sports fan, if not, the melodrama does. Both intertwine together to give a full picture of who this man is. The middle of this film hits the hardest as Jacks and Angela’s friends receive grave news of their son – Michael’s friend. Jack grief stricken falls back into his ways finding himself at the bar getting drunk. If he doesn’t get drunk, his life doesn’t get saved. He does break into a strangers house (not sure why their back door wasn’t locked in the middle of the night) picking a fight with the owner and coming to a crash on the pavement.
The acting is more adult than most sports movies due to the themes presented. Sports aside – this is eye opening subject matter; everybody knows someone who has come across alcoholism. The run time for this film is perfect spending just enough time with the team as well as fighting and facing the demons within. The pacing of this film works well with how the story unravels. The direction of Gavin O’ Conner allows Ben to give one of, if not the best performance of his career. As wild as that sounds (not wild at all he’s so underrated as an actor), Ben is given the opportunity to tell his story of redemption through a fictional outlet.
“The Way Back” is balanced well, we don’t spend too much time with the team as the film is more than just a sports movie. The time spent does have a lasting impact as he changes the players lives turning them into better human beings while his recovery takes place. Showing the progression of just the final outcomes was the best choice than taking a chunk of the film and showing a few games played out in full.
The films intent is to make you emotional. It’s meant to show failures and teach how those mistakes don’t define you as a person. Jack is a good man with the greatest intentions in the world, but he made some really stupid choices. He finds his “Way Back” to the man he once was. In a sense, it’s loosely an autobiography pleading with those who are too headstrong that its ok to ask and receive help but only if you are brave enough to seek out that help.
This movie is beautiful and from the whirlwind of a year we are in regarding the film industry, it’s one of the best that has been released. This is Ben Affleck at his best, his most vulnerable, his bravest and his strongest. It takes a lot of strength to have the lenses focused on you while confronting something that has put you in a difficult situation and that deserves the utmost respect.
If there is no pandemic and things were firing on all cylinders – Ben’s performance is Oscar worthy especially for a film that is released so early in the year. Unfortunately the Oscars may be cancelled – what a bummer that would be. If I were to rate The Way Back, I’d rate it a 4.65 out of 5.
So, tell me guys, have you seen The Way Back and if so, what do you think about it? Do you agree or disagree with me? Comment below or send me an email and let me know what you think.
The Way Back is directed by Gavin O’ Connor is Rated R and has an 83% on Rotten Tomatoes. The Way Back was released on March 6th, 2020 and has a runtime of 1 hour and 48 minutes. The Way Back can be bought online by retailers including Vudu, Google and Itunes.
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