The Way Back (2020)

Every loss is another fight.

Day-drinking dockworker Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) looks like he’s one bad day away from his alcoholism dragging what’s left of his life down the gutter when he gets a shot at redemption: coach the basketball team at his old Catholic high school, Bishop Hayes, where he was once a star player.

Based on that logline, The Way Back could be a rather clichéd sports/ addiction drama, and to be honest, if you just look at the raw, unadorned plot points, it kind of is. We have an emotionally shattered protagonist, clearly undone by some trauma in his past, one last shot at setting things right, a ragtag, talented but undisciplined sports team in need of strong leadership and inspiration, and an understated but nonetheless ever-present aura of faith-as-redemptive-mechanism, which could be a sticking point for more stridently secular viewers. In its unadorned story form, The Way Back is an inch away from being shelved with the rest of the Hallmark movies.

‘I’m fine.’

But plot isn’t story, and the film is significantly elevated by Brad Ingelsby’s astute, observational script and Gavin O’Connor’s raw, verité-style direction. What really hoiks it up to the next level, however, is Ben Affleck’s performance, which will more likely than not see him in the Oscar conversation towards the end of the year, should pundits’ memories stretch all the way back to March.

The last time Affleck and O’Connor teamed up, we got the lurid, pulpy, and thoroughly enjoyable action thriller, The Accountant (2016). This time out, they’re giving us something much more low-key, much less high concept. The Way Back is a character drama, and the character in question is not just fallen hoop dreamer Cunningham, but Affleck himself. The parallels are inescapable; Affleck himself is an alcoholic, he’s fallen short of his potential as a filmmaker (well, that’s the received wisdom, anyway), his drinking has torpedoed a marriage. This isn’t me throwing shade — he’s been admirably upfront about his struggles. The public has at times been less than kind — see the ‘Sadfleck’ meme as a prime example — but Affleck seems to have embraced the idea that if you’re going to go through this stuff under public scrutiny, you might be best served by being as public as possible, and his turn as coach Cunningham seems to be an extension of that, or perhaps even an act of therapy in a similar vein to Shia LaBeouf’s turn in Honey Boy (2019).

‘I got a feeling this team is not as bad as its record.’

We spend a lot of time with Cunningham by himself, as he starts his day with a beer in the shower, fills his keep cup with booze in his car, sneaks nips of vodka in moments of solitude, and on and on and on. He’s not a binger until he’s off the clock, when he spends his evenings getting utterly obliterated at a local dive bar, but he’s a ‘round-the-clock self-medicator, anesthetizing himself against a pain whose source is gradually revealed over the course of the film. He’s completely emotionally unavailable to the point where even in company he’s alone; family gatherings at his sister’s (Michaela Watkins) house are tense because of the elephant in the room, while a lunch meeting with his ex-wife Angela (Janina Gavankar) is similarly fraught.

And through it all, you get the inescapable sense that Affleck, beefy and disheveled in a way that, frankly, is reminiscent of candid paparazzi photos of his good self, knows what it is to be this guy. It’s a remarkable performance: honest, understated, at times utterly self-eviscerating, but never histrionic. It’s easily the best of his career, and odds are good that record won’t be broken any time soon, unless he goes out of his way to track down similarly self-dissecting parts in the future.

Life goes on …

He’s supported by an incredibly well-cast ensemble, and one bereft of ‘movie star’ faces. Affleck can’t help but bring a little glamour to the proceedings if only by dint of the last 25 years of his career, but the people around him counterbalance that — everyone here feels real, ordinary, normal. Comedian Al Madrigal, Night School (2018), is great as assistant coach Dan, an amiable, sobering (pardon the pun) presence on and off the court. The boys in the team feel like real high school kids, not Disney Channel refugees; they have the awkwardness and vulnerability of adolescence combined with the forced bravado of emerging masculinity. You recognize these kids; they feel authentic. That authenticity extends to the film’s working-class setting; everywhere the story takes us, it feels like the camera has just wandered into an existing location. The production design by Keith P. Cunningham, The Gambler (2014), is remarkably on point. O’Connor has done a remarkable job leading his troops on this one, every creative choice designed to dial down the melodrama, which in turn serves to heighten the emotional verisimilitude.

He’s also smart enough to know that an unrelenting slog up Calvary Hill isn’t going to do anyone any favors, and so The Way Back’s drama is leavened with some well-deployed, understated comedy, mainly in the form of the bullish Cunningham, who has a mouth like … well, a dockworker, gently clashing with the team chaplain (Jeremy Radin) on issues of language and decorum. It’s not belly laugh material, nor is it characters dropping polished zingers — the comedy emerges naturally out of the situation as presented, complimenting rather than working counter to the core drama.

Winning changes everything.

The Way Back is, simply, a fine film, one that quietly and effectively goes about its business of following its characters from crisis to catharsis. It’s quietly powerful and affecting, and I worry if its lack of spectacle will make it hard for it to find an audience, which would be a shame. While the story beats are familiar, the attention to detail, emotional nuance, and Affleck’s unflinching performance make it well worth getting in front of.

4 / 5 – Recommended

Reviewed by Travis Johnson

The Way Back is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia