‘The Way Back’ offers one of Affleck’s most personal films
Do not be mistaken. While on the surface this may appear to be a rehashed sports film, this redemption story of a rag-tag basketball team and the real-life struggle of Ben Affleck’s battle with his alcoholism elevates it above most. Perhaps his most personal film since “Good Will Hunting,” “The Way Back” is a return to form for Affleck.
Just from the first few minutes alone, it’s clear the basketball portion will be sitting on the sideline. The film opens to Jack Cunningham working his construction job, somberly sipping from his cup all day. After work, it then becomes apparent how serious his struggle is. He drinks on the job, almost always has a beer in hand (even in the shower), and goes to the bar every night. While this first act starts off a bit slow, it’s necessary – that doesn’t mean a bit faster pace wouldn’t be appreciated.
The light that saves Jack comes in the form of coaching his old high school’s basketball team. Having not made the playoffs since Jack’s senior year, the team is in desperate need of a coach. Now this is where the movie does become slightly formulaic. It is always uplifting to see the underdogs start to become the top dog, but I can name countless times I have seen this before. Nonetheless, it is impossible to deny that feel-good uplifting feeling. The script did have the integrity to recognize this and took a slight deviation from the expected near the end, which was a very nice touch – it provided closure for Jack’s personal arc as well as the teams. It was the little extra push the film needed.
The fight Jack is fighting is portrayed perfectly by Affleck, a recently recovered alcoholic. Affleck’s performance was so believable, giving a shot of reality. Every drink taken looks like Jack is fading away to hide some sort of pain. At first it seems like, there is no real reason why, but the film hides a punch until its latter half that hits so hard. Affleck is really given a shot to show off his acting chops here, and he completely delivers. Party due to his acting hiatus, it has been a few years since he has shown this level of talent.
There are some mature subjects that are integral to the story, continuing to reinforce the amount of grief in the film. While it is uplifting at the end, the drama takes it time to reach this point. Having the movie more focused on Jack rather than his team makes it all the more intriguing.
Having the title serve two purposes was a stroke of genius. Likewise, “The Way Back” maintains the interest of those looking for a sports movie, while also having the extra depth of a well-crafted drama. Affleck’s emotional performance is the gate between the two that will entertain from tipoff to final buzzer.