Entertainment » Movies

The Way Back

by Sam Cohen
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Mar 24, 2020
'The Way Back'
'The Way Back'  

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For those of you who have been tuning into Ben Affleck's big promotional tour for his new inspirational sports film and addiction drama "The Way Back," I'm sure you've heard plenty about how personal the role was to Affleck because of his own struggles with alcoholism and rehab. That's why it's slightly heartening to report that his performance is what carries the film when the story doesn't allow for anything but convention. Take your standard issue addiction drama and throw it up against your standard issue inspirational sports story, and you get "The Way Back." But where those two well-worn narratives collide is where the film gets interesting, although it doesn't have any interest in exploring that subversion further.

Jack Cunningham (Affleck) is a former high school basketball phenom dealing with incalculable trauma from recent events in his life, including the breakup with his wife Angela (Janina Gavankar). He works construction during the day and drinks straight vodka out of his thermos at work. When he goes home, he crushes a rack of cheap beer while muttering nonsense to himself. But when his former high school asks him to come back as the basketball coach, his last shot at redemption reveals itself. Will he be able to stay sober and coach a ragtag group of youngsters to the regional trophy? Or, will this only push him further into his worst vices?

"The Way Back" comes from Gavin O'Connor, whose best works usually deal with the same subject matter: Sports. "Miracle," his 2004 Kurt Russell-led story about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, became the anthem of my hometown, which was already filled with parents, kids, and coaches doggedly focused on ice hockey. Then, with 2011's "Warrior," he started to veer a bit from your straightforward sports drama and more to how these activities can shape and form behaviors that are destructive. That's why it should come as no surprise that with his newest, he continues to tread similar water. But when Jack's quest for redemption and sobriety clashes with the sports narrative, it becomes a zero-sum game.

On one hand, you have a remarkable performance by Affleck with a director that clearly understands his strengths as an actor. In one sequence, Jack grabs a beer out of the fridge, puts it in the freezer, and takes out the beer he had left in the freezer before the scene started. We see him repeat this action until he's a blubbering mess, chain-smoking cigarettes and on the verge of tears as he stumbles across his bleak apartment like a bowling ball. There's something inherently dogmatic to Affleck's performance that really makes the film much more than it should ever be, given the script. So, when it elides with an inspirational sports drama that's about as generic as they come, you feel disappointed.

Save for a pretty sobering twist three-quarters of the way through, "The Way Back" is exactly as advertised. Although I do give it credit for running through routine team-building montages as a way to progress the narrative rather than show a triumph of strength. You see the players training cut against Affleck diving deeper into a drunken stupor. It becomes apparent that the coaching gig isn't doing anything to alleviate his spiritual crisis. Misgivings aside, this so closely becomes a little more than a prestige drama that it becomes frustrating. In another universe, there's a version of this story that really plunges the viewer into the destitute life of an addict compounding one addiction with another.

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