The Way Back

Jacob Richardson | 11/03/2019

A poignant dramatic turn for Ben Affleck.


After a personal crisis, Jack (Ben Affleck) returns to his hometown a destroyed man - separated from his wife, and highly dependent on copious amounts of alcohol to get through the day. When Jack starts, reluctantly, coaching the high school basketball team, his fortunes seem to take a turn and rebound in the same manner as those of the team itself. That is, until a further tragedy strikes him low once again.


The Way Back is a film decidedly of two halves. The first plays out as somewhat of a standard basketball coach drama film, as Affleck’s Jack takes the typical motley assortment of characters (the quiet one, the obnoxious one, the troubled one) and turns them into a functioning team. It is accepted by the upward journey of Jack himself, who seems to be kicking his alcohol dependency now that he has the team to focus on. The second half, and somewhat the more interesting half, chronicles his subsequent fall. Hit by another tragedy, Jack begins to slide back into his former ways, until it reaches such a point that he needs to decide to change. 


Affleck, whose substance abuse issues have been well chronicled, does incredibly well with this material - undoubtedly aided by his personal experience. His treatment of alcohol, of himself, and of others while under the influence, rings incredibly true, and he imbues Jack with a stoic dependability at the same time as filling him with a reprehensible addictivity. In many ways, our relationship with Jack as a character feels similar to our relationship with Affleck the actor over the years.


The supporting cast is largely fine, with few standouts. As his separated but not yet divorced wife Angela, Janina Gavanker is a breath of understanding and fresh air in what threatens to be a male-only view of the issue. This is still undoubtedly a tale of white male grief, but there are echoes of the complex story from Angela’s life here too. The film would have benefited from investigating that complexity more.


Visually, the film oscillates between furious flurries of editing in the sports games, masking any actual required talent, and long languid shots soaked in endless amounts of lens flare. It is a pretty film and a gritty film at the same time, full of muted greys and browns that seem to mimic the mildew mood of Jack, and flaking seaside pastels that seem to speak to his faded glory. 


The Way Back doesn’t really break any new ground. But it does tread that old ground with aplomb, and features a terrifically grounded, compelling performance from Affleck.


The Way Back shoots and scores.