Film Review – The Way Back (2020)
The Way Back (2020)
In a recent interview with The New York Times, Ben Affleck candidly speaks about, among other vulnerable subjects, his ongoing struggles with alcoholism. Falling off the wagon is a demoralizing experience for anyone, but having these failures broadcast across the internet for clicks has got to intensify the ego bruising tenfold. One can’t help but recognize his turn in Gavin O’Connor‘s The Way Back as therapeutic in a sense, then, as the bulk of its (not unseemly) run time delves deeply and unsparingly into the psyche of a semi-functioning alcoholic. It also may be the best work of his career.
Teaming up again with O’Connor after 2016’s surprisingly good The Accountant, Affleck jumps headfirst into the role of Jack Cunningham, a hulking husk of a man spiraling out of control one beer at a time.
While the primary reasons for Jack’s depression aren’t immediately revealed, what is is the systematic routine of his every day life as a perpetual drinker. Nursing his everyday hangover with a morning shower beer, pouring vodka into his coffee tumbler before heading out to work his construction job, closing out his favorite watering hole each night, most ending with him literally being walked to his own front door. It’s exhausting to watch, and purposefully so.
Out of the blue, Jack receives a call from his former alma mater, a Catholic high school in need of a basketball coach. It’s revealed he was a star athlete as a teenager, his accomplishments still being brandished proudly on the gym walls. After a banger sequence of tragicomedy, in which Jack polishes off about 30 beers in one night while rehearsing his refusal, we smash cut to him arriving dishevedly on the court to meet his ragtag players. It’s here the film intersects its unflinching portrait of a tortured soul with an uplifting sports drama, to mixed results.
O’Connor is hardly a stranger to this genre, as previous efforts Miracle and Warrior will attest. But The Way Back loses its focus some by expanding its canvas. The players Jack coaches mostly boil down to the stereotypes we’ve seen countless times before. The hothead. The ladies’ man. The poor kid with something to prove. The performances themselves are fine, if perfunctory. It’s essentially two movies for the price of one, but the balance is a little shaky.
The coaching scenes do occasionally give us some much-welcomed laughs, be it the confidentials between him and assistant coach Dan (Al Madrigal) or Jack’s penchant for swearing at the kids, much to the dismay of the school’s helicopter principal. There are also good turns from Michaela Watkins, as Jack’s exasperated sister Beth, and Janine Gavankar as Angela, his estranged wife. These women have had a front row seat to Jack’s gradual downfall and their shared pain is palpable.
I’ll tread lightly here, but there is a second act reveal that is both predictable and disappointing. Jack’s constant reliance on booze is more accurately depicted than I’ve maybe ever seen in a movie, but do we have to have a life-altering reason for it? People drink for any number of reasons. It feels a little cheap to give him such an easy out.
Despite its flaws, though, The Way Back is an exceptional character study and Affleck is outright phenomenal. Give it a shot. Just don’t make it a double.