The Way Back – Movie review

After the production mess that was Justice League (2017) and the incredibly lackluster Live by Night (2016), Ben Affleck attempts to deal with his personal and professional downfalls with The Way Back. A teaming of him and director Gavin O’Connor most famous for 2011’s deeply moving sports drama ‘Warrior’. Well… this is no ‘Warrior’, far from it.Image Source: Cultured vultures
Writing this review, I struggled to come up with words to best describe my experience watching this and that’s mostly because it was a nothing experience. I struggled to pick out memorable aspects of the film I had just spent nearly two hours with.
Ben Affleck plays Jack, a once brilliant basketball champion turned alcoholic. He’s separated from his wife, slumps through his job in construction with apathy and beer cans, lives in isolation and only seems get any form of joy from his evenings at the bar. His bleak situation seems less so once he’s offered a job as the head coach of the basketball team in his former high school. He struggles to come up with a good enough excuse to turn down the job but ends up drinking himself to sleep before he can conceive one and reluctantly takes the job instead.
The character of Jack seems to be the perfect one for Affleck to sink his teeth into since much like Affleck; Jack is separated from his wife, struggles with alcoholism and has his past glories following him around. The problem however is that O’Connor and Affleck seem to think that this alone is enough to carry a whole film. The film is mounted on this one performance and barely tries to give attention to anything or anyone else. Jack’s sister played by Michaela Watkins is a one note character poised to stand in the background and point a cautionary finger at her brother’s destructive habits. His wife of whom he is separated from but still shares grief with has three or four scenes with him none of which gives much depth to their dynamic.
Back at his job as a coach, Jack takes interest in the team’s most talented player, trying to get him out of his shell and have him develop more confidence as a player. It’s through their interactions that Jack learns about the boy’s situation at home and how his father won’t come to any of his games because he doesn’t support it, he doesn’t believe that his son can acquire any success from basketball he himself having tried and failed. I know, it sounds like any other sports movie trope of parents opposing a sports career and it is. Nothing new is offered here, no interesting angle to the subject, no noteworthy resolve.
At some point when watching this I asked myself what this film really aimed to do. Was it to entertain? The sluggish pace and cheerless basketball scenes suggest otherwise. Is it to explore themes of grief and addiction as well as craft an intimate character study of a broken man struggling to re build himself? The lack of depth with which the film handles these subjects suggests otherwise. So what is it then? The Way back feels more like a therapy for its lead actor. You as an audience member are not provided with much in terms of experience.
Ben Affleck’s performance though authentic and expertly underplayed, feels extremely safe. There’s no risk or any new ground covered. He brilliantly brings out the character’s broken nature but we still get the same somewhat bravado attitude we’ve gotten from him in every single film he’s done before. It doesn’t feel like Ben Affleck the actor is taking any challenge, only Ben Affleck the man.
The film itself also aims for decency and nothing beyond. It has no heart and only a little soul, barely enough for you to remember much of it shortly after its end. If you’re looking for a movie about a high school basketball coach on a path of redemption with superb character work and raw captivating performances that will have you heartbroken but also blissfully cheering on during the basketball sequences, maybe watch ‘Hoosiers’ (1986), not this.

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