Sometimes hitting rock bottom is best path to redemption…
While The Way Back hits some of the sports movie beats that you’d expect in a film of this nature, it’s also a very quiet, realistic and nuanced portrait of what grief, circumstance and human frailty that we all succumb to can genuinely do to people as they try and find their way out it all.
Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) once had a life filled with promise. In high school, he was a basketball phenom with a full university scholarship, when suddenly, for reasons unknown, he walked away from the game, forfeiting his future. Now years later, Jack is spiraling down, triggered by an unspeakable loss, and drowning in the alcoholism that cost him his marriage and any hope for a better life. When he is asked to coach the basketball team at his alma mater, which has fallen far since his glory days, he reluctantly accepts, surprising no one more than himself. As the boys start to come together as a team and win, Jack may have finally found a reason to confront the demons that have derailed him. But will it be enough to fill the void, heal the deep wounds of his past, and set him on the road to redemption?
It’s impressive and a testament to all involved when a sports movie can avoid some of the more expected trappings of the genre and gives us a story that comes alive because it’s just dripping with honesty which only gets us more invested in everything that is going on.
Director Gavin O’Connor (who also co-wrote the film with Brad Ingelsby) both deserve a hell of a lot of credit with this one because this story has more intimate complexity to it then we’d expect going in. It’s a fascinating character study that avoids the dramatic flourishes you’d expect from redemptive storytelling and never lets the protagonist off the hook for any of his mistakes while still making him this fairly likeable character who we know is at least TRYING to move on from what is holding him back in life. Story points never get hammered over our head and it all feels very organic and natural from the opening tip.
There’s no cheap outs in any of this film and O’Connor allows moments of genuine strength but also ones of legitimate human frailty to shine, and while it has the occasional flash of Hollywood sports movie storytelling in it, The Way Back allows us to see not only these student athletes from a place of genuine vulnerability but the man behind them as well in a career performance from this film’s leading man that we haven’t seen in years.
While it’s easy to grant that Ben Affleck’s recent admissions of his battle with his own sobriety give him a unique place to access the emotions that his character is going through, that doesn’t change the fact that this just might be one of the best performances that he’s ever given. In Jack; Affleck gives us a good but ultimately broken man who can’t find a way past the mistakes he’s made and the tragedies that have littered his life. He tries to fix it on his own, and succeeds for awhile until circumstances from his past finally push him over and edge that he just can’t get back from. It’s showy but in a heartbreaking kind of way and very clearly throws himself into this character that he knows probably far too well and makes him both an asshole yet an empathic soul all in one fell swoop. He’s the anchor of this movie and he’s supposed to be.
The flipside of that is that the supporting players who feature a couple of familiar faces in Michaela Watkins, Al Madrigal and Glynn Turman do well enough, much like the kids on the basketball team that he’s trying to inspire, the focus was always to remain on Affleck and his character’s struggles.
Ben Affleck’s performance in The Way Back is ultimately why this movie finds a way to shine and become something more than expected sports redemption story. It reminds us of the fallibility of the human spirit and how sometimes you need to lose in order to really learn how to win.