The Pitch: Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) was the all-star athlete of a private Catholic school in his teens. He was a gifted hoopster, a full-ride dribbling machine that drove even the shortest, geekiest kids at Bishop Hayes to try out. His wins drove enrollment. The basketball team was a local phenom in the early ‘90s. Jack was offered a scholarship to play for Kansas, and then, poof.
What happened to Jack?
Jack is now in his ‘40s. He’s working construction, drinking to excess, and doing a piss-poor job of hiding the latter. Gin in his on-site thermos. A cooler full of frosty suds, taunting Jack the second he clocks out. But then Jack’s alma mater calls him, out of the blue, to offer him a gig coaching his old team. The school’s program has declined, and he’s offered a gang-of-10 with a losing record.
Jack reluctantly takes the gig, and the team begins to prosper anew. Yet Jack is also faced with bad choices, his worried family, and a slippery inability to exorcise all his demons. He’s a high-caliber fuckup, and beating an addiction takes more than a couple one-liners and three-pointers. Half sports flick, half substance abuse scenario, director Gavin O’Connor’s The Way Back seeks to find hard-pressed redemption on the court and out of the bottle.
Sports Bar: This type of sports genre hybrid is nothing new. Hoosiers played in the arena, as did Coach Carter, Glory Road, and Blue Chips: The gruff coach story.
Cunningham is a drunk, his family worries about him, and his fall from greatness is quietly revealed over time. The faith-based implications on hand are a screenwriter’s best friend when searching for overt metaphors about ::reads Bible:: forgiveness, piety, and resurrection. And Cunningham’s team, ranging from a loud-mouth star to a wise-ass ladies’ man to the unsung hero on the bench, leaps straight out of the teammate characterization playbook. A less nuanced critique would chortle at Affleck whacking a beer can to show how serious he is, or wince at the thuddingly obvious religious parallels throughout. What makes this better than a showy cable movie about addiction?
Well, for one, this isn’t the kind of out-and-out sports film where everything comes down to a final game. Faith and Christ are present, but not the be-all, end-all for Jack’s sobering up. And Affleck adds more than slurred speech and stumbling to his performance, digging deep for some reasonably dense characterization of a guy that’s at once maddening, self-pitying, sort of funny, and perhaps most shockingly, understandable. The Way Back is extremely familiar in some ways, but its best moments are found in the little shake-ups of genre and creative choices found here and there.
Lay-ups: We’ve seen millions of actors sweat out drinking problems on screen, but there’s something so painfully unglamorous in how Affleck lets his gut hang as he houses beer after beer, before eating quick burritos to stay alive. And without spoiling too much, the way Jack’s complicated past is revealed makes him both sympathetic and despicable in equal measures. Among the film’s smarter decisions, Jack isn’t let off the hook easily, relapse is a real hazard, and there’s no cure-all for a lifetime of issues that likely call for therapy, perhaps in addition to working out.
Gavin O’Connor is no stranger to star vehicles and athletic fare. His re-creation of the 1980 Olympics, Miracle, endures as a work of peak sincerity, and he’s wrangled Affleck before in their not-so-distant thriller The Accountant. The duo reconnects for a naturalistic, snug hybrid of sports and melodrama in the vein of O’Connor’s MMA feature Warrior. But where that effort was an emotional uppercut, The Way Back pursues something earthier and even harder-punching.
Jack’s time is running out, and O’Connor and Affleck make the movie feel a little sweaty, panicked. The games are shot nitty-gritty, and when O’Connor is done making a point about Cunningham’s behavior, or needs to characterize a certain player, he’ll freeze frame with a final score before the clock runs out. The ease with which things go South for Jack are breathless, and to Way Back’s credit, it’s a startling reminder of how fragile rehabilitation is. The movie moves tighter than a scrimmage, and that’s to Way Back’s benefit. O’Connor goes for point after point with what feels like limited time on the clock. Like Cunningham’s got next to no time left to atone.
Ben There Done That: Much has been made in recent weeks of the para-text surrounding Affleck’s public admissions about his own struggles with alcohol. Whether or not that will matter, or define how this film is read in the long run, is hard to say. Romantic movies get bonus attention through real relationships. Tentpoles are recalled with liner notes about how troubled the production was. The Way Back, well, we’ll see.
What can be said now is that Affleck looks vulnerable. He’s burly, breathing as heavily as a bear, hiding in plain sight while the literal weight of alcohol carries on his body. Bodily transformation as an acting tool is often so dubious that it’s lost meaning in some cases, but Affleck uses it to his benefit. This guy, who can barely make it through the day without gin, was a hoops prodigy?
In the annals of this kind of performance, Affleck has a real level of sincerity going for him here. He doesn’t reach the surreal regrets of Ray Milland in Lost Weekend or Denzel Washington in Flight. He’s not an amiable chum, a Jack Lemmon in Days of Wine and Roses. He is a drunk, he has a lot of problems, and maybe, just maybe, he has a chance come the end. But he has to want it.
Verdict: Even if the message is clear, and the vibe can be a little movie-of-the-week, The Way Back does find an interesting set of ways to present itself.
Where’s It Playing? The game is on in theaters everywhere.