Director Gavin O’Connor has been one of the most consistent humanist filmmakers in mainstream cinema for well over a decade. Known for acclaimed dramas such as 2004’s “Miracle” and 2011’s “Warrior”, O’Connor has always found himself infatuated by the idea of confrontation, or more specifically, collision. It makes sense that a director with such ideas often finds himself working in the sports genre. With “Miracle”, a hockey drama, “Warrior”, an MMA drama, and now “The Way Back”, a basketball drama. However, O’Connor hasn’t been that interested in the sports themselves, but rather the people involved. Examining how each sport is able to bring catharsis to the character or is able to mend broken bonds is something O’Connor has regularly explored. Even his 2016 actioner “The Accountant” — also starring Ben Affleck — he was able to touch upon a fractured sibling relationship.
In what feels like a film tailor-made for star Ben Affleck, “The Way Back” follows Jack Cunningham (Affleck), a former high school basketball star who has since fallen on hard times. Having failed his marriage and largely isolating himself from his family included his sister (Michaela Watkins), Jack spends his days working construction where his regularly pours gin in his coffee mug, chugging beers while driving, spends every evening getting plastered at the local bar and waking up to drink beer in the shower. When Jack gets a call from his old high school wanting him to coach their failing basketball team, Jack accepts this new challenge, hoping to confront his inner demons and to potentially make a positive change in the teams players.
Affleck has recently experienced some hard times as well with the actor/writer/director publicly struggling with his own case of alcohol addiction, one of the many reasons he recently admitted to bowing out as Batman. His recent divorce from Jennifer Garner and multiple stints in rehab over the past few years have clearly taken a toll on his career and overall well-being. With the immense similarities between his personal life and the character, this is undoubtedly a personal film for Affleck (almost uncomfortably so at times), which is why its all the more satisfying that “The Way Back” achieves major success.
Ben Affleck digs deep and mines much of the pain and suffering he’s gone through in his life to bring this tortured character to life. Often times, Jack doesn’t even feel like a character, but an extension of Affleck himself. This is also surprisingly not a showy performance either. Affleck brings a great deal of nuance to the anguish and despair Jack is clearly living with and forgoes the usual charisma he is known to bring to the screen. The two time Oscar-winner is as vulnerable and stripped-down as he’s ever been. His bold commitment to the role further grounds the films authenticity that is also supported by a smart script by Brad Ingelsby (“Out of the Furnace”).
“The Way Back” operates as a rich character study, delving into the effects and psychology of alcoholism, that fronts as a straightforward sports drama. O’Connor wisely side-stops the typical maudlin cliches that come with the territory. The basketball players are a ragtag group of teenagers, each with different backgrounds and personalities, but even the ones with the more typical backstories — the team captain with a neglecting father, the mouthy one who’s more sensitive than he would like to let on, the ladies man, etc — are given an honest lens that counterbalance the familiar trappings. O’Connor is too smart a filmmaker to settle for false melodrama that manipulates the heart-strings. “The Way Back” is largely effective due to the subdued approach to the material. It’s a film that devastates most in the small, intimate moments.
Perhaps the biggest example is that of Janina Gavankar who plays Jack’s estranged wife. The dynamic between her and Affleck would normally be the easiest to portray as hokey, but the scenes between the two actors always ring true. As the film progresses, we learn more about why their marriage came crashing down, leading to the films most stark sense of melancholy.
“The Way Back” is another film that fits perfectly inside director Gavin O’Connor’s oeuvre. A character study about finding redemption and catharsis in the sport most critical to the life of the films subject. It’s an authentic portrait of self-destruction that marks the most personal work to date from star Ben Affleck.