Director: Gavin O’Connor
Writer(s): Brad Ingelsby
Cast: Ben Affleck
Synopsis: An alcoholic construction worker must battle the demons of his past while he coaches his old high school, basketball team.
I like to think of myself as someone who not only keeps up with movies, but keeps up with the actors, directors, writers, and the entire film industry. I spend a lot of my days looking up future movies, how the production is going, etc. This is something I have always found interest in. However, every so often there is a film that flies so under the radar that it is not talked about anywhere. Not on social media, or the blog sites that cover the industry even closer than I do.
When the first trailer for The Way Back released on November 14, 2019, and I witnessed a movie about Ben Affleck as an alcoholic basketball coach. Directed by Gavin O’Conner, the same director of another great sports movie Warrior, I had no idea how this fell so under the radar for so long. I had reason to believe it was not a real movie, and that when the film’s “release date” came, it would be some full on gag that we would all laugh about and move on. Then the trailers began to look better and better, and then the reviews came in, and suddenly this became one of my most anticipated films of the year.
I am glad to say that on March 6, 2020, less than four months from the initial trailer, I watched this film. And, the final product is something that tore me as much as any other film I have seen recently. The sports aspect of the film manages to be a product of its own cliches. It moves along the same beat and path of every sports movie prior to it. Teams awful, the team gets new coach, the team finds fire, and the team becomes really good. Improbable, yes, effective, sometimes. Tying in that the coach is a struggling alcoholic makes it a bit more effective, but when the new coach, Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck), gives up drinking early on into coaching, it really becomes that same run of the mill sports movie that everyone in the world has seen.
However, what this film did extremely well, was tell its story in two parts. There is a moment in this movie after a big underdog win that we get a freeze-frame on Jack and a fade to black. On the first watch, I assumed the movie had ended. But what really ended was this sort of fantasy life Jack had been living in for so long. What we get after is what I came to see.
From this moment on, we get the best acting Ben Affleck has ever done in his career. Affleck becomes powerful on the screen in a downward spiral that felt so honest and real. The alcoholism and addictive nature were strongly played up in the first half of the movie, there was a scene where he drank at least 30 beers in one night, but we never got to see the real effects of that alcoholic nature until this back half of the movie. A moment where Ben Affleck drunkenly stumbles into a house is just crazy enough that as an audience, we believe it. We recognize and live in this pain he is going through, and it is truthfully the first time I have ever seen Ben Affleck allow himself to become an actor. To portray those hard emotions, behind the face of a brooding hardass that he always is.
Without his performance though, this is mediocre at best movie. The first half of this film is where the movie really struggles by being so by the book. We get the same sports story we have always heard. The first half of this movie also never gives Affleck any room to shine. He tries so hard to keep the entire thing together and does give a fairly good performance in the first half of the film, but the movie never lets him get to that place until later in. You can tell he is trying, but something with the film is constantly holding him back. I am torn on this though because the back half of the film was that great. It is like making a dog wait to eat the snack. You can tell how hungry they are to really delve into something deeper and meaningful but knows they must wait. They payoff worked so I cannot blame them, but if it didn’t, we would be talking about this movie in a different way.
We also get hard glimpses of his life and a few shocks, but there are times where situations in Cunningham’s life are talked about strictly for dramatic tension. A moment in the car with his star point guard Brandon (Brandon Parrish), we get a glimpse into the troubled past of Cunningham and his father, but it is never fully fleshed out. He makes a claim that the reason he drinks is because of his father, but other than the one conversation, we are left in the dark as to what actually happened. And, while the back half of the film was exactly what I wanted so much from this movie, it was done at such a fast pace you never fully got the chance to live in the moments with Cunningham. Affleck’s performance was forced to work, or else this movie would have severely faltered off.
Final: The Way Back becomes a product of its own cliches with a very “by the book” story, but is absolutely elevated by a hellacious performance by Ben Affleck. One that if the film was released later in the year, or if more of the first half gave Affleck his time to shine, we may be talking about serious award consideration. I still think he can get there, but with the film not being quite as endearing as some others, I think his chances are slim. Critics groups should help him out though because Affleck’s performance is awards-worthy.
Current Tomato Score: 88%
Current Metacritic: 68%
Current IMDb: 7.4/10
Awards Prospects: Best Actor
Jacob is a film critic and co-founder of the Music City Drive-In. He is a member of the Music City Film Critics’ Association and specializes in the awards season. You can find him on Twitter @Tberry57.