The Best Ben Is Back In ‘The Way Back’

by Jonah Desneux on March 6, 2020

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Minor Rock Fist Up]

I suspect The Way Back will be the surprise hit of the early part of 2020. While the initial urge might be to write off the ultra-cheesy sounding inspirational Gavin O’Connor-directed film starring Ben Affleck as a man struggling with alcoholism who ultimately redeems himself by coaching a high school basketball team, I suggest you not. Don’t get me wrong, The Way Back is full of cliches from start to finish, but the sappiness never enters the realm of intolerable melodrama.

There is a lot to enjoy in The Way Back, like Affleck’s best performance in years and Eduard Grau’s excellent cinematography. There is also a lot to disdain, from the formulaic plot to the aggravating start and stop pacing. Combating the big and little issues you are left longing to be fixed, the good of The Way Back wins out. We aren’t finding an awards contender at the beginning of March, but O’Connor has added another accolade to his legacy of sports films (such as Miracle and Warrior) that are truly inspirational.

Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, a man haunted by loss and the inability to overcome his alcoholism. Once the star of his high school basketball team and the potential to play D1 ball on a full scholarship, Jack now in his 40’s lives as a divorcee whose life revolves around his next drink. Once the opportunity arises for Jack to return to his high school to coach the troubled basketball team that made him a star, he accepts in hope to find a purpose that has been missing in his life.

Much of the power of the film’s plot and the lead performance, comes from Affleck’s well-known history of issues with substance abuse. The line between actor and character is faint, and Affleck brings personal seriousness that couldn’t be matched by any other working actor in Hollywood.

Other than Affleck’s performance, the biggest take away from The Way Back is how well it rides the line of essentially being one large cliche. There is a world where this script fails due to the repetitive plot and the abundance of overused sentimental storylines, however, O’Connor balances this out exceptionally with a touch of nuance, not commonly found in sports dramas. Instead of all the obstacles needing to be overcome and challenges facing the characters being laid out in the first 20 minutes, The Way Back almost works as a mystery plotting different clues to discover the character’s inner psyche. There are not over dramatic monologues or scenes of screaming to show the true issues of the characters, but instead subtle indications that lead to a big moment of reveal that works flawlessly. The sappiness thus becomes forgivable. After the cleverly constructed path that leads you to a massive emotional punch to the gut, you’ll be begging for those moments of cliche to assure that the characters you now care for are going to be okay.

The cinematography is also a grand factor in helping The Way Back work as well as it does. The clever use of close-ups and tight framing, keep Affleck trapped in the screen as he is trapped by his vices. The progression of how the film is focused is also of immense importance. In almost every scene the background is extremely out of focus as Jack continuously fails to keep his clear in attempts of sobriety. The focusing and the surroundings it creates works in a way that is similar to German Expressionism back in the 1920s, which is not something you can say about every sports drama. 

The cinematography is simply interesting and gives much weight to the film. The very first basketball scene is specifically a highlight of the film and should be the new staple of how scenes on a court should be shot. If there was less to dissect about camera choices and the mise-en-scene established, the film would be far less forgivable for its faults.

With all that, you come to appreciate with O’Connor’s clever handling of cliches and subject of the film, it is a great disappointment that the formulaic narrative is as stale as it is. Too many times in The Way Back feels as if it’s just going through the motions. The message is always kept intact, but the rise and falls are far too predictable. The structure of the film is so bland that it guts much of the originality thoughtfully established. The story arch you expect in a film of this nature, is unfortunately exactly what you get and it limits all enthusiasm you could potentially have. 

The film’s pacing also dwells with the film’s narrative moments of unoriginality. Whenever the film turns into an expected direction of sorrow, the film lingers on those scenes for far too long, especially near the end. The film takes on a start-stop approach that is greatly unappealing as it keeps you away from the moments that work so well. Even though the run-time isn’t anywhere terrible (1h 48min), the pacing issues would have benefited with time being shaved off. I don’t know why films like The Way Back are so afraid of being 90 minutes. They would work significantly better having a shorter time that lets them be more precise.

Affleck thrives in personal roles that in many ways be himself. He has never been much of a character actor and when he goes in that direction his work is never as strong as it is in films like The Way Back. Affleck excels in this film from the experiences he brings to the character and that Affleck charm that seems off-putting but always gets you. His performance in this film shows that there is still a lot of life in his acting career, now that his days as Batman are done.

Jonah Desneux

Jonah Desneux is a recent graduate from the University of Missouri with a BA in Film Studies. It’s baffling that someone who just spent four years writing film paper after film paper would immediately want to write some more, but hey, he must love it! Along with writing about film Jonah enjoys writing and performing sketch comedy in Columbia and Kansas City.

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