“The Way Back” proves that Affleck the actor gives one of the finest performances of his career. The strength of Affleck’s work is uncanny as he is the reason to see the movie and this is the reminder of how great an actor he is. It looks like it may be based on a true story, but in fact it is not a true story. The battles Affleck’s character deals with in alcoholism is to an extent the truest part of the story and what he is currently dealing with in his personal life. The script by Brad Ingelsby is solid, while director Gavin O’Connor (who directed Affleck in “The Accountant”), directs in a strong docudrama-style, directing a lean and powerful drama. “The Way Back” wins both the playoffs and the championship, and is a complete victory in itself.
Ben Affleck is Jack Cunningham an ex all star high school Basketball player, who lived his glory days on the court. As the film opens we find him living his life, twenty five years later as a construction worker by day and hitting the bottles and cans as an alcoholic all day, all night and into the next day. He is so deep into the addiction that he drinks while taking his morning shower, at work, after work by keeping a cooler in his truck and popping open a can on the drive home, goes to his local bar drinks himself drunk where he needs constant help getting home from an older gent played by Glynn Thurman (although it feels like a big chunk of his performance was left on the cutting room floor).
Once he gets home he continues to drink polishing off a fully stocked fridge of beer in one sitting (complete with the trick of swapping out beers in the freezer to keep them cold). He drinks till he passes out and wakes up the next morning and does it all over again. This is his daily routine and he sticks to it every day.
Talking about sticking to it, so does Affleck as an actor as he sticks to one of the finest performances of his career. The strength of Affleck’s work is uncanny as Ben is the reason to see the movie and this is the reminder of how great an actor he is. This is his best acting since his roles in the underrated “The Company Men”, his gritty thriller “The Town” and David Fincher’s “Gone Girl”.
“The Way Back” looks like it may be based on a true story, but in fact it is not a true story. The battles Affleck’s character deals with in alcoholism is to an extent the truest part of the story and what he is currently dealing with in his personal life. As Affleck has recently gone back to rehab and has been very open about battling the bottle much like his character.
Rarely has a screen alcoholic been as convincing as Affleck is here (other than Bradley Cooper’s recent performance in “A Star Is Born”). Unfortunately Affleck’s experience with the disease makes his performance as an alcoholic that much more real. He’s also got the sweaty complexion that’s often glossed over in movies about substance abuse, although this detail was not overlooked, in the Bradley Cooper directed version of “A Star Is Born”. Affleck much like Bradley Cooper who gave a phenomenal performance as an alcoholic musician in the Oscar nominated film. Cooper has also fought Alcoholism many times to thankfully being sober for many years now.
Affleck clearly throws himself into the role, digging deep for the tailor-made role. Whatever part of his personal life he might have brought to the screen, no one can deny it ranks up there with his best-ever performances. Never before has Affleck seemed to an extent, be playing a character he had so much in common with.
It helps that the script by Brad Ingelsby is solid, even if it does owe some credit to that other basketball classic “Hoosiers” (which is also the best sports film ever made). It hits some of the usual sports movie structures. As we know Affleck’s gonna turn around his undisciplined team, or have the shy player he knows has the goods (Brandon Wilson) shine on the court.
When players get out of line, Jack is quick to punish, to go as far as kicking them off the team. He also instills in them a toughness they never had. He’s got the nice guy assistant coach (Al Madrigal) as well as conflict with the parish priests of the religious school due to his constant f-bombs. Some elements you just know how things are gonna play out. Then it surprises you by thinking you do, until you don’t.
We’re seeing the start of Ben Affleck and director Gavin O’Connor as one of those star/director duos that work cinematic magic together. Having previously collaborated on the “The Accountant” where Affleck played an autistic hitman. Director Gavin O’Connor has experience directing sports tales with “Warrior” and the Disney released “Miracle” with Kurt Russell.
O’Connor plays it fast and loose with the basketball scenes. He doesn’t linger and play the clock on the basketball action, although he films it in an authentically-messy feel of it being a high school competition. He chooses to skip past the embarrassing losses and quickly cuts camera from the game and displays the final score. He does this in service of getting back to Jack’s story away from the court. It’s a decision some will find frustrating, but in deep this isn’t a full fledged basketball movie.
While it’s a great sports movie, “The Way Back” is much more than that. The ending O’Connor and screenwriter Ingelsby gives us is another indication that makes it clear that, this isn’t a movie about basketball but a movie about life, redemption, grief and alcoholism. What leads him to alcoholism makes Affleck’s character more sympathetic, as he’s ultimately given a tragic reason for drinking, which is not revealed until halfway into the film.
O’Connor has probably been given license by Affleck to peel back all the layers, despite how uncomfortable it can get. O’Connor directs in a strong, docudrama-style direction and keeps his winning streak as a filmmaker, directing a lean and powerful drama.
People are saying this is Affleck’s comeback as a lead actor, which i disagree with as his career isn’t hurting (his next film is “The Last Duel” directed by Ridley Scott, written by Affleck and Matt Damon). He’s in no need of a comeback, but it’s great to see him making movies again that he looks to be truly invested in. He puts in the work and elevates a redemption story that is semi familiar, but is completely its own. The film wins both the playoffs and the championship, and is a complete victory in itself.
GRADE: ★★★★1/2☆ (4 & 1/2 out of 5)