‘The Way Back’ Review
So much booze…It would be easy to classify The Way Back, from writer-director Gavin O’Connor, as a sports movie. After all, he has given us two excellent ones in Miracle (2004) and Warrior (2011). However, as with those two films, there is much more going on here. This is about grief and addiction, and the difficulties in mending a life in tatters.
Jack Cunningham likes his morning shower. It helps get him to prepare for a day of construction work and get over a late night of drinking. What’s unusual about his morning routine is that he drinks a beer while taking his morning shower, and then fills his Yeti with gin as he takes his post at the building site. Jack is played by Ben Affleck. Of course, anyone who even casually keeps up with Hollywood gossip knows Mr. Affleck and his character here have in common a drinking problem. In fact, the actor filmed this immediately after his latest rehab stint. It’s quite possible that the collision of real-life and fiction explain why this is Affleck’s best performance in many years (at least since Hollywoodland in 2006). He re-teams here O’Connor, who directed him in The Accountant (2016).
As a former high school basketball star, Jack’s life has turned out much differently than expected. His construction job is beating him down, alcohol abuse is slowly destroying him, and he recently split with his wife Angela (Janina Gavankar) after a tragedy. Has he hit rock bottom? It happens so often in life, an opportunity presents itself. The head priest at his former Catholic high school asks him to step in as basketball coach after the current coach has a heart attack. The team is terrible, and has been that way since Jack graduated 25 years ago. After a painful-to-watch evening of decision-making, Jack accepts the job.
As you would expect, it’s a team of misfits who have little concept of teamwork. Affleck excels as a coach who evaluates the talent he has and devises a strategy to not only improve individual player performance, but also inject the philosophies of teamwork and cohesion and commitment. He does this with the help of Algebra teacher slash Assistant Coach Dan (Al Madrigal, “I’m Dying Up Here”), who appreciates what Jack brings to the position, but is also protective of the boys and the school mission. Jack manages to stay sober while coaching, but we see how fine that line is for an addict. Life suddenly rears up and plops an emotional situation that is simply too much form him to handle. It’s here when we realize that while it appeared coaching the team gave Jack a glimmer of hope for a better life, it also allowed him to ignore the personal issues and relationships that had driven him to the bottle. The basketball scenes are the most fun to watch, but it’s the realistic life elements that elevate the story. It’s excruciating to watch Jack re-telling glory days stories to his ‘buddies’ at the local neighborhood bar, only to be helped home by the same old man who used to carry his father home from the same bar. The perpetuation of misery is a story that is all too relatable for many.
Jack’s good qualities are evident when he’s prodding ultra-quiet point guard Brandon (Brandon Wilson) into taking on a leadership role and thinking of his future, but that’s contrasted with his inconsiderate treatment of his sister Beth (Michaela Watkins) and Father Mark (Jeremy Radin), the team/school Chaplain. It’s the two sides of Jack that so clearly resonate with those who have experienced addiction. This is a guy who botched his college basketball opportunity, but managed to build a new life, only to have it snatched away in the cruelest way possible. It’s imperative that he comes to grips with all of that in someplace other than the bottom of a beer mug.
The outstanding screenplay comes from Brad Ingelsby (Out of the Furnace, 2013), and with director O’Connor and the cast, the film has a throwback to the 70s feel…gritty and realistic. This is not the smirking, strutting stud we are accustomed to seeing with Affleck. He seems immersed in the role and brings an understanding to the struggles, the rehab, and the importance of a support system. Redemption played a huge part in the classic Hoosiers (1986) and most every other rag-tag sports team in movies, and The Way Back shows us there really is no going back…instead, we must deal with life in order to move on.