PG Score: 8/10
The Way Back is a powerful sports drama that is backed by Ben Affleck’s best performance to date. The film centers on Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck), a former high school basketball superstar who left the court for good many years ago and relinquished his future in the process. In the midst of his ongoing battle with personal demons, he is offered a coaching position at his alma mater and a chance at redemption. The Way Back is first and foremost a heavy drama that puts the protagonist in the spotlight from start to finish. The sports aspect of the movie takes a backseat to Jack’s personal trauma. Those hoping for extended sequences of baskeball action may be disappointed. While the few that do occur are very exciting for the most part, it’s far from the film’s central focus. This is a character piece in its truest form. Basketball simply serves as a means to help Jack on his path to heal. Director Gavin O’Connor (Warrior and The Accountant) has a gift for orchestrating immensely moving character studies. The Way Back is no exception. Jack is a full-blown alcoholic and it captures every waking moment of his daily descent into oblivion. Where other films may pull punches in their depiction of alcoholism, TWB unleashes a flurry of haymakers. The ritualistic binging and the aftermath that follows such ruinous behavior are on full display here. It never shies away from placing the self-destructive tidal wave and the ensuing wreckage front and center. The result of this approach is an honest look at both the disease itself and the backbreaking journey of recovery. A movie like this cannot work without a strong performance from its lead actor. Luckily for the filmmakers, Ben Affleck’s performance is sensational in every sense of the word. The anguish his character is constantly experiencing is masterfully displayed. His venomous outbursts, drunken monologues, subtle efforts to hide his drinking, and extensive brooding are all expertly depicted through the veteran actor. The times when Jack is by himself, drowning in beer, silence, and self-loathing are especially gut-wrenching and really highlight the extent of Affleck’s on-screen prowess. He is simply magnificent and this is the best work of his career.
He should not only be commended on the merits of his acting, but also on the bravery it took to accept a role that hits so close to home. It’s no secret that he’s had a host of alcohol-related issues and to muster the courage to play a part that must relate so heavily to the struggles in his own life is pretty remarkable. TWB shows that he’s not only fully invested in the role, but also in his own recovery. The minor flaws in the film are mainly found during the actual sports scenes. First off, it could’ve used a few more of them. Even though The Way Back is a character piece, basketball still serves an important purpose for Jack’s journey, so a heavier emphasis would’ve been ideal. Secondly, it felt like the pregame speeches and banter between coach and players weren’t impactful enough. One pregame talk in particular seemed to have been altered in tone and cut down since it was first shown in the initial trailer. Lastly, the film did end a bit abruptly. While it was by no means a major letdown, a more fleshed-out finale would’ve been more meaningful. The Way Back is another win for Gavin O’Connor. It’s honest, passionate, and forceful. Most importantly, it features an absolutely sublime performance from Ben Affleck.