The Way Back on the surface comes off as just another sports movie, and the trailer would lead anyone to believe that. However, director Gavin O’Connor’s latest project is far from a feel-good tale with a polka dot and moonbeams ending. If anyone is seeking a triumphant story of a group of ragtag misfits who band together to win it all, then this isn’t that movie. The Way Back is about the dangers of using substances to fight off the demons which haunt us. The film is rich with authenticity and, at times, incredibly unsettling. Ben Affleck has never been better in this haunting performance that was nothing short of stunning.
The Way Back is the story of former Catholic League basketball prodigy Jack Cunningham (Affleck) who seemingly lives his life one bottle at a time. By day Cunningham works construction and manages to work a few drinks while on the site. At night he is often found at a local dive bar drowning himself in a sea of Jack Daniels and Budweiser. We aren’t initially sure precisely what has lead Cunningham to this point in his life. It seems as if his relationship with family members is now strained. Is this by choice?
In the midst of days and nights spent drinking, Cunningham receives a phone call from his old high school. We later find out that they require a new basketball coach, and the bishop had their former star at the top of his wish list. Is jack even capable of holding it together to run one practice, let alone a whole season of games?
The writing in The Way Back is incredibly smart. Brad Ingelsby’s screenplay doesn’t rely on the Basketball to tell this story. The team is used more as a plot device that moves things along and provides a window into Cunningham’s state of mind. The film is at it’s best during the awkward family moments a Thanksgiving or at a birthday party with his soon to be ex-wife. Cunningham’s overconsumption of Alcohol has regressed him so much that he doesn’t know how to function in most settings. Ingelsby doesn’t shy away from showing the darkness that comes with being an alcoholic and the impact it has on family members and friends.
Eduard Grau’s cinematography made The Way Back feel so personal that the audience quickly becomes invested in Cunningham’s wellbeing. Grau deftly uses close-ups during the darkest moments of the film, creating the sense that we are witnessing Cunningham’s downfall. He also was effective at capturing the more emotional jarring moments by mixing in the use of handheld cameras and two-shots.
Affleck is fantastic in The Way Back. Some might argue the reason could be that he drew inspiration from his battles with addiction, but that’s a bit disingenuous. What made his performance work so well wasn’t what Affleck said but what wasn’t. His body language and facial expressions projected a man so tortured it was hard not to weep anytime he was on screen. My favorite moments came in the shower. Each day, he had this look of utter exasperation. Cunningham drowned his pain with booze in the hopes that one day he wouldn’t wake up. Every new morning represented a failure in his quest.
Overall, The Way Back is deceptively brilliant. O’Connor’s film is an all too real look at the dangers of substance abuse brought to life by a career-defining performance from Affleck. Had Warner Brothers released this later in the year, the Oscar winner might generate award season buzz. Being that it’s March, the film could easily get lost in the shuffle. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.