Ben Affleck is powerfully dramatic in The Way Back, a somber and intensely personal film. Every preconception I had walking in was dispelled quickly. This is not another tired rehash of a Caucasian coach inspiring minority kids to athletic glory. The opposite is true, and thankfully without stereotypical racial undertones. The Way Back shows how the darkness of tragedy and self-loathing can be overcome. It is a serious, realistic portrayal of human nature.
Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) is an alcoholic. A steel worker in Southern California, he drinks continuously throughout his day. Whether it's hiding vodka in his coffee mug, getting plastered at his local bar, or plowing through beers in his apartment. Jack lives in a constant state of inebriation. He has isolated himself from friends and family. Jack's sister (Michaela Watkins), and separated wife (Janina Gavankar), are extremely worried.
A chance meeting at the liquor store with a high school classmate sheds light on Jack's history. He was a star player in the Catholic schools league. Jack is shocked when his former priest offers him the varsity coaching position. His first instinct is to decline politely. He decides to take a risk. The team is much worse than expected. But the players and game awaken a part of his soul he thought could never be healed. Jack is forced to face the tragedy that led to his downward spiral.
The Way Back takes a methodical approach to understanding the protagonist. The reason for Jack's drinking is not revealed until the second act. Director Gavin O'Connor (Miracle, Warrior) establishes the character before delving into his psyche. He doesn't want cheap sympathy. Jack expresses his hurt through addiction. The reason why is absolutely heartbreaking. The reveal is more impactful when you already know where it leads. O'Connor is sublime in his ability to flesh out characters.
The Way Back is not a rah-rah sports flick. There are humorous moments, and the basketball scenes are well done, but the downbeats are prevalent. A river of tears can easily be shed in the film. Emotions run high, but are never melodramatic or overblown. The plot is fueled by sincerity. What happened to Jack is not extraordinary. Families face similar situations daily. The truthfulness of his journey is perhaps the most affecting.
Audiences are going to be stunned by the range Ben Affleck shows in this film. The ability to emote nonverbally is the most difficult thing for an actor to do. Gavin O'Connor has Ben Affleck in almost every frame. There are stretches when it's only him, especially when drinking. It is then remarkable to juxtapose those scenes with his coaching of the players. Jack sees greatness in a reserved student (Brandon Wilson). He pushes the teen to be his best. When the teen wonders why he never followed his dream, Jack's response will floor you. Affleck delivers his most mature performance yet.
The Way Back will tug mightily on your heartstrings. Gavin O'Connor continues to make gripping, humanistic films. He directs Ben Affleck to a new level of acting mastery. The Way Back could have been cliché ridden and predictable. It is much more thoughtful than expected. The Way Back is a Bron production with distribution by Warner Bros.