The Way Back
Gavin O'Connor's The Way Back is a predictable, yet cathartic sports drama that is anchored down by Ben Affleck's powerhouse performance. Affleck steals the show in what otherwise could've been another forgettable comeback story.
Warrior and The Accountant director Gavin O’Connor re-teams with star Ben Affleck for The Way Back; a basketball drama focused on a struggling couch trying to get a grip on his life, while also steering a group of youths towards their on-the-court dreams. The Way Back definitely feels familiar and even lived-in, but what it lacks in original storytelling, it makes up for with its powerhouse performance by Affleck.
Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) is a former star athlete, excelling in basketball during his high school years, only to mysteriously stop playing the game when he had colleges lining up to offer him a full ride scholarship.
Now, Jack mostly gets by doing construction jobs, followed by a pitstop at the local bar to get a strong buzz going into the night. This is followed with numerous drinks afterwards when he returns home. Jack is a struggling alcoholic trying to get a grip on his life and reality, failing to really connect to his family or friends, instead just washing away his sorrow with a cold one.
The Way Back‘s dealing with Jack’s alcoholism is an interesting one, introducing us very quickly to Jack’s demons, but only slowly revealing the bigger picture as we get to know the character. I think this is wise, because it helps unfold the story in a slightly non-typical fashion.
Sports dramas, especially comeback stories — are a dime a dozen and not all that exciting in my opinion, unless the comeback is layered with something unique or different. The Way Back gets this and instead focuses on Jack for a bulk of the film, later introducing the struggling basketball team and how his chance to turn the team around might also mean his own chance at redemption for his past mistakes.
Director and co-writer Gavin O’Connor is no stranger to this type of film, having directed both Miracle and the criminally-underrated Warrior — a film which The Way Back is certainly not.
The Way Back is more of a solo powerhouse film, focusing on star Ben Affleck‘s turn as the washed up and lost drunk. For those of you following Affleck’s personal life — The Way Back hits close to home as he has revealed recently that he is overcoming his own battle with the bottle and Affleck’s performance in the film feels all the more raw and real because of it.
He carries the film’s weaker or slower moments with ease, because every single piece of emotion shed on the screen is from the heart and clearly a battle that he intends to win.
This helps set up the sports drama aspect in a way that feels second-fiddle to the booze and that’s fine, because we’ve all seen a coherent sports drama about a team that sucks and eventually gets better with time, practice and the right direction.
Jack helps turn the team around, but the film doesn’t dive deep enough into the teammates to really paint a true picture of each individual. The film occasionally stops off for Jack to offer a ride home to a player walking home from practice in the dark or a player shamelessly hitting on the single ladies when he should be getting on the bus to leave for a game, but this is mostly for comedic relief or for dramatic connective tissue that helps the film feel whole, but doesn’t shift the focus away from Affleck in any way.
And that’s mostly okay. The Way Back feels honed in on its lead and is more worried about slowly dropping hints from his past to help shape his future, which does involve the success of the basketball team, but is mostly worried about his own relationship with the sport.
It might sound offensive to call this a minor Gavin O’Connor film, but I would be lying if I said that The Way Back moved me the way Warrior did — that film had so much more going for it, led by three spectacular performances that were accompanied by a stellar cast, not to mention a story that just kept peeling back layers as it moved, upping the intensity and raising the stakes to new heights.
The Way Back feels very stripped down and focused and for that I respect it. It’s not going to blow your mind or turn you into a puddle, but it definitely tugs at the heart strings, especially for those that have dealt with alcoholism either first-hand or second.
I appreciate O’Connor and Affleck’s desire to make an R-rated drama that might not be appropriate for all ages, but certainly hits home more so because it refused to gloss over the ugly stuff. Rock bottom hasn’t looked this bad in a while and while the inevitable relapse scene almost felt too brief, it was still an eye-opening reminder of just how easy it is to fall back on everything you’ve worked so hard for.