Ben Affleck as Jack Cunningham
Al Madrigal as Dan
Michaela Watkins as Beth
Janina Gavankar as Angela
Glynn Turman as Doc
Todd Stashwick as Kurt
Hayes MacArthur as Eric
Directed by Gavin O’Connor
The Way Back Review:
Alcoholism is one of the toughest internal struggles a person can go through in their life and cinema has tried time and again to believably depict this battle over the years, with few successfully doing so, save Nicolas Cage’s Oscar-winning turn in 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas leading the handful to get it right. Ben Affleck has been in the headlines more times than Hollywood has nailed portrayals of alcoholism and with his latest effort The Way Back, he utilizes his dark past for arguably the best performance in his career, even if the film as a whole doesn’t support it.
Co-written by Brad Ingelsby (Out of the Furnace) and director Gavin O’Connor (The Accountant), the film follows Jack Cunningham, a construction worker whose wife Angela (Janina Gavankar, Blindspotting) has left him and is struggling with alcoholism while hiding a tragic past. Nearing the end of his rope, Jack is called up by his Catholic high school, where he was a basketball star, to help coach the struggling basketball team, putting him on a path to better himself and face his demons.
The story may not be the most unique in nature, feeling like a more grounded and R-rated version of The Mighty Ducks, but that’s not where it truly falters. The real issues in its story comes from the imbalance of its exploration of Jack’s devastating alcoholism and his strive to improving his basketball team and leading them to championship glory. Both threads feel mostly true and captivating in their own rights, even if generally formulaic, but without any primary focus on one or the other and never finding a good 50/50 balance to its plot, it feels like neither gets the proper spotlight or conclusion they each deserve.
The biggest plot thread that feels the most captivating and the most shallow is the dive into Jack’s fight against alcoholism, which often times feels real and is powerful to watch, but also proves rather frustrating and a little too short-sighted. Like many other films featuring characters struggling with the issue, such as the hilariously dark Colossal, it resolves the fight a little too easily and a little too quick, seeing Jack choose to stop drinking relatively early in the movie and sees little to no struggle on his behalf until the obligatory dramatic turn of events sending him to rock bottom late in the game. By no means does this spell out an untrue or lackluster exploration of alcoholism in the film, as Jack’s struggles do still ring believable and captivating, but in looking to pair with an underdog sports story an hour-and-45-minute runtime, it feels a little too surface-level and undeserving of the performance delivered by Affleck.
Story issues aside, however, both plot threads still prove to be entertaining and emotionally-rewarding stories to watch, mostly setting itself apart in both genres with decent enough character development for Jack and Angela, as well as well-crafted basketball sequences that sees O’Connor returning to his stylish past in Miracle and Warrior.
Even when the film doesn’t hit the ambitious storytelling it clearly aims for, it’s nonetheless carried by Affleck’s stellar performance in the lead role, really the best of his career. There’s no doubt he has shined in numerous roles over the years, from his various characters in Kevin Smith’s View Askewniverse to his self-written Good Will Hunting and self-directed turns in The Town and Argo, and yet something about this performance feels like the role he was actually built for. I’m honestly a major defender of his work as the Dark Knight, even if the films he appeared in weren’t the strongest, and I love his drugged-out character of Dean in Mike Judge’s Extract, but seeing him star in something true to himself and who he wants to be makes his performance feel all that more powerful.
Affleck’s performance and O’Connor’s direction are both supported by the stellar cinematography Eduard Grau (Boy Erased). Despite mostly being shot around the sunny and beautiful area of San Pedro, California, Grau fills the camera with mostly grey and muted colors that help audiences further connect with Jack’s deteriorated mental state, occasionally brightening things as his life appears to be getting better while helping every moment to feel warm and powerful.
The Way Back may not be the best underdog sports story or the best exploration of the awful fight against alcoholism, but thanks to some beautiful cinematography, emotional storytelling and Affleck’s breathtaking performance, this proves to be a rewarding and entertaining affair.
The Way Back is open in any theater currently open and is available for purchase on VOD and digital platforms now!