THE STORY – A former basketball player who turned down a scholarship to the perennial power house college basketball program, the University of Kansas, now an adult struggling with alcoholism, is offered a coaching job at his alma mater. As the team starts to win, he may have a reason to confront his old demons.
THE CAST – Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Michaela Watkins & Janina Gavankar
THE TEAM – Gavin O’Connor (Director) & Brad Ingelsby (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 108 Minutes
By Matt Neglia
Ben Affleck has had a lot of ups and downs in the Hollywood business and his personal life. He has been very open to the public about his alcohol abuse, his other personal demons and how it led to his divorce from actress Jennifer Garner. Now, we get to see art imitate life as Ben Affleck bares his soul in Gavin O’Connor’s (“Warrior” & “The Accountant”) latest sports drama “The Way Back.” Filled with every sports cliche you can possibly think of, the film is elevated by Affleck’s career-best performance which may even bring the inconsistent but still beloved star his first Oscar nomination for acting.
Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) was once a major high school basketball star who turned down a scholarship and went on to his live his life. When we first meet him, he’s a construction worker, suffering from alcoholism as he drinks when he wakes up, when he showers, when he drives to work, when he works and when he gets home from the bar, until he passes out and does it all over again. We don’t know why he is this way but the movie will eventually make that clear to us. One day, he is approached by his former catholic high school’s priest to coach the current basketball team. Shorter than the typical basketball players they’re going up against and struggling to function together as a team, Jack reluctantly steps in and helps to coach them to success. However, Jack’s own issues with himself stemming from own setbacks threaten to take it all away.
Channeling the same inner turmoil and reserved rawness that his brother Casey brought to “Manchester By The Sea,” it wouldn’t be far fetched to say that Ben Affleck’s performance in “The Way Back” earns our ability to call this “Manchester On The Court.” The pain, sorrow, and anguish that is felt by Affleck’s character Jack Cunningham is one that is relatable and never blown out of proportion despite the predictability of the story that surrounds him. O’Connor sensitively directs Affleck to what can only be described as a career-best from the 47-year-old actor. He’s never been this vulnerable on camera before. Shedding all of his movie star qualities and exposing to us a character who may not be Ben Affleck precisely, but the demons which that character is facing are the same ones which Ben himself has had to face. This personal connection to the material for its star will certainly color how you feel about the film if you care about Ben Affleck’s struggles. If you don’t, I suspect that “The Way Back” will be another in a long line of sports dramas that we receive every year which don’t go on to ever be remembered. However, if you are invested in Ben Affleck the person, you will see how much this role and this movie means to him, thus making for a richer experience overall.
“The Way Back” already has a number of cliches that aren’t done any favors by Rob Simonsen’s overly dramatic score. Filled with low piano notes and enough dramatic heft to cause anyone watching to pop open a bottle themselves, the dreary cinematography and emotional score are not subtle in trying to tell the audience that this is a serious movie. O’Connor’s shooting style for this movie is not nearly as pristine as it was in his other sports films such as “Warrior” and “Miracle,” as he favors a washed out and grainy look, with handheld cameras and some very odd zooms during the movie’s more dramatic scenes. While Affleck’s performance is finely calibrated, as is the simple story of one man’s redemption, O’Connor’s direction leaves a little to be desired. Mercifully, the movie is kept under two hours and moves along quite well but as a result, none of the other characters outside of Jack get enough time for us to emotionally connect with them.
“The Way Back” will surely represent a pivotal moment in not only Ben Affleck’s life but hopefully in his career as well. It’s pretty amazing how often we’ve given him chance after chance and every time he stumbles, he manages to pick himself back up and garner himself another comeback narrative. Forget about Hollywood success. In the end, we just don’t want to see this man self-destruct to some very real personal demons that we are all susceptible to. “The Way Back” pulls no punches in exploring alcoholism, depression, and anger. However, it’s not all gloomy, as Gavin O’Connor and Ben Affleck give us enough hope, reminding us that the way back is rough and hard but always obtainable for those who really want it.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A powerfully reserved, tortured and deeply empathetic performance from Ben Affleck which ranks as the best of his career.
THE BAD – Can’t escape a number of sports cliches. Overly dramatic. Other characters aren’t anywhere near as interesting as Affleck’s.
THE OSCARS – None