Ben Affleck lays it all on the line in The Way Back, the incredibly moving and gut-wrenching character study of a man lost in his personal abyss of addiction and depression and who has one final shot at redemption.
Former High School basketball phenom Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck), struggling with alcoholism, is offered a coaching job at his alma mater. As the team starts to win, he may have a reason to confront his old demons. But will it be enough to set him on the road to redemption?
When it comes to delivering dramatics that hit home director Gavin O’Conner is always a terrific filmmaker to turn to. Throughout his career, O’Conner has delivered a wide variety of extremely memorable and poignant films such as Miracle, Pride & Glory and Warrior and has crafted a reputation for producing extremely moving cinema. But his work on The Way Back takes this to a whole new level, and in my own opinion, O’Conner delivers not only the best film of his career but also one of the most moving pieces of cinema you’ll witness all year. The Way Back is a film that pulls no punches with its subject matter of addiction and the personal abyss of one man, and O’Conner grounds the film in a contemporary blue-collar relevance that many people will find familiar, and this focus on reality is what makes it so poignant.
O’Conner analyses some major themes in The Way Back such as addiction, guilt, depression and redemption and he doesn’t sugarcoat the self-harm or the consequences that affect Ben Affleck’s, Jack Cunningham. Jack’s severely unhealthy addiction to alcohol has left him as a man who is hanging out just above the bottom, and O’Conner and Affleck do not shy away from the depths of despair that alcohol can cause to both the dependent and those who are around them. The Way Back is a film that is completely sobering to the core and O’Conner’s upfront focus on the dangers of addiction is a real gut punch for audiences.
The Way Back is completely Ben Affleck’s movie and the actor bears his own cross in this film with a performance that is full-on and comprehensive and in my mind is likely his best performance to date. It’s common knowledge that Affleck suffered through a bitter divorce and multiple bouts of alcoholism, and he places all of this pain and anguish into protagonist Jack Cunningham. In relation to the character, Jack is a complete has-been as the washed-out former basketball player who turns to a life of drinking to dull the pain and whom is haunted a secret tragedy that destroyed his life. When he’s suddenly thrust into the responsibility of coaching his former team he’s got to get his act together and quickly. Both in Jack and Affleck you see a man who is fighting to overcome his demons and who knows that this is his last chance to do it right. It’s all on the line here and he can’t afford to stuff it up.
The concept of the sports movie and the game of basketball are also of extreme importance to the success and relevance of The Way Back, and it’s here where O’Conner and Affleck get creative. O’Conner has an understanding of the sports movie, and he uses the genre to his advantage with the film’s narrative and the emotions of the audience. This particularly works its way into the film’s third act, which I won’t go into for possible spoilers, but which completely changes up the narrative in a very interesting, and completely unexpected way and gives this film even more punch. This third act change is the work of a director who is in full control of his film and who wants to craft something with impact, and with this narrative shift, he certainly does just that.
Alongside both the direction of O’Conner and Affleck, praise must also be lauded upon cinematographer Eduard Grau. Grau is the genius behind works such as A Single Man (which in my opinion is the most beautiful film ever shot) and Buried and he brings his talented eye to bear on this significant story, which he captures with an almost documentary style and a colour palette of earthy tones that focuses in on the film’s blue-collar nature and makes it that much more accessible and relatable. The score of composer Rob Simonsen also helps to build out the emotional weight of this film, and it’s a score that hits its audience with an equal mix of heavy lows and hopeful highs that promise a path to redemption.
The Way Back is an incredibly powerful piece of cinema and it’s a most excellent return to form for Ben Affleck. He completely bears his soul with this performance and this redemptive story is a fitting reflection of his own road to recovery.
Image: Roadshow Films