A sincere thank you is owed to Ben Affleck. The actor easily could have remained in that Batman suit for the foreseeable future, cloaking both his face and his emotions. He chose to instead cash out from the D.C. Comics darkness and get real in The Way Back. To be sure, he’s still portraying a version of the Tortured Good Guy with a Past. But he exposes his vulnerabilities in ways that his fans have rarely seen — and does it in a drama that obviously holds deep personal meaning to him.
There are moments in this film when it’s impossible to know where the character of Jack Cunningham ends and Affleck begins. This would be evident even before he recently went on-record with the New York Times and admitted to his struggles with alcoholism. Jack carries himself with a heaviness of a man worn down by years of hard living. When he smacks a beer bottle across the room out of frustration, his action comes off as an instinctive reflex. This is a fascinating and insightful portrayal, and one that towers tall in an otherwise forgettable and dreary outing.
We meet Jack as a dead-eyed constructor worker in his blue-collar town. He spends his days going through the motions and his nights chugging down beer after beer in his local watering hole. He staggers into his ramshackle house with the help of a concerned friend. How alarming is his alcohol addiction? He keeps a beer can in the shower next to the soap. (Curiously, Affleck’s character also drank in the shower in the 2000 drama Bounce.) His sister (Michaela Watkins) wants him to start dating again in the wake of his separation. He’s not interested, preferring to wallow in his sadness. His relationship status is not the underlying reason for his problems, by the way.
Jack gets a shot at redemption when he’s asked to take over as coach a Catholic high school basketball team. And this isn’t just any school or any team: Back in the 90s, Jack was its superstar player and had the talent to land a full-ride scholarship to a top college. (In a tacked-on subplot, he didn’t take it because of his sour relationship with his dad.) Now the guys have a losing record and are the laughingstock of the league. They need a shake-up. In the film’s most effective scene, Jack talks himself out taking the job while walking back and forth to the freezer and chasing down his guilt with beer, all on a loop. A row of empty bottles sit idly on his tiny kitchen table by the time the sun is up. And yet, he ultimately can’t say no to the school’s Father. This would have been a far more interesting movie if he had.
When a rag-tag basketball team starts at the bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up. In The Way Back, they do it via every play in the sports movie handbook. The fiery motivational speech? The neglectful parent? The hot-headed player? The wild buzzer-beater? The feel-good montage that illustrates marked improvement? Check, check, check, check and check. Even the shaky-cam, natural-lighting shooting style — which gives the games a lived-in, organic feel — is straight out of Friday Night Lights. And, ahem, Jack Cunningham is no Coach Taylor. We’re supposed to believe that these guys flip their woeful sub-.500 record and make the playoffs because he starts using impassioned profane language and disciplines them for bad behavior. If only!
Given the film’s title, it’s no spoiler to reveal that Jack also will end his own journey a better person than he is at the start. (Come to think of it, The Way Back could have been titled Bounce too). The arc is heavy-handed and predictable, and we’ve seen it all before and with more nuance in richer films from Hoosiers to Casey Affleck’s Manchester by the Sea. What’s fresh is Ben Affleck’s authentic take of a broken man. His palpable heartbreak is the true heart of the story, and his performance prevents the film from turning into a PG Disney-esque rah-rah underdog tale. That alone is worth cheering for.
The Way Back is in theaters on Friday, March 5