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In Theaters: THE WAY BACK (2020)

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THE WAY BACK
(US/Canada - 2020)

Directed by Gavin O'Connor. Written by Brad Inglesby. Cast: Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Michaela Watkins, Janina Gavankar, Glynn Turman, Brandon Wilson, Jeremy Radin, Will Ropp, Charles Lott Jr., Melvin Gregg, Fernando Luis Vega, Ben Irving, Da'Vinchi, T.K. Carter, John Aylward, Todd Stashwick, Dan Lauria, Jeremy Ratchford, Matthew Glave, Nancy Linehan Charles. (R, 108 mins)

2004's exemplary MIRACLE demonstrated that director Gavin O'Connor--then best known for the 1999 indie TUMBLEWEEDS--had a knack for the inspirational sports drama, while 2011's WARRIOR remains one of the all-time great gut-wrenching man-weepies. He's had a generally well-regarded career as a journeyman with films like 2008's cop drama PRIDE AND GLORY and 2016's autistic assassin thriller THE ACCOUNTANT, with 2016's long-shelved JANE GOT A GUN being his only real misstep thus far, though in his defense, he stepped in at the last minute when Lynne Ramsey quit during pre-production a few major cast members followed suit, leaving O'Connor with an already out-of-control grease fire. O'Connor combines the feel-good underdog spirit of MIRACLE with the emotionally overwhelming haunted-by-the-past drama of WARRIOR in THE WAY BACK, which reunites him with ACCOUNTANT star Ben Affleck. The real story here isn't how it fits into the O'Connor oeuvre, but rather, the uncompromising, soul-baring performance of Affleck, who brings to the table much of his own history as a recovering high-functioning alcoholic who's publicly fallen off the wagon more than once.






Affleck is a longtime tabloid mainstay who's had enough ups and downs over his career to qualify as the John Travolta of his generation. Though only in the current pop culture environment can someone star in superhero movies that grossed between $230-$330 million domestically and still be held partially culpable for their status as "flops," with the added bonus of social media taking a meme-able glee in one's professional stumbles, personal meltdowns, and questionable choice in back tattoos. Yes, THE WAY BACK is a bit too contrived in its writing and it often comes close to being BEN AFFLECK IS SOBER: THE MOVIE, but it has a level of sincerity and authenticity that almost seems therapeutic for him at this point in time. Looking convincingly beaten down by life, Affleck is Jack Cunningham, a construction worker who's isolated himself from friends and family. He's separated from his wife Angela (Janina Gavankar), and every day is the same: he has a beer in the shower, pours some gin in a travel mug on the way to work, stealthily keeps it filled over the course of the day, fills it with a beer after work to hold him over until he gets to the bar, where he usually shuts it down with endless beers and shots, knowing that his elderly friend and bar regular Doc (Glynn Turman) will make sure he gets home. On the occasional nights he stays in, he sits at his kitchen table and works his way through a case of beer, passes out, and does it all again the next day.


An unexpected shot at redemption comes in the form of a job offer from his Catholic high school alma mater: their basketball coach is out indefinitely after a major heart attack and they need a replacement. Jack is a legend at the school, having taken them to victory at the state championship 25 years ago. He's reluctant to take the job since it interferes with his drinking schedule, but something ignites in him and he dives into the task at hand with the help of nice-guy assistant coach and algebra teacher Dan (a good serious performance by comedian and former DAILY SHOW correspondent Al Madrigal)--namely, trying to turn around a ragtag team of undisciplined showboaters who barely have the fundamentals down ("Hey, quit dancing!" Jack yells as the whistle's about to blow at the start of his first game as coach. "You're 1-9, stop acting like you hit the Powerball. It's embarrassing."). They very slowly begin to build camaraderie and momentum and become a better team, and have one legitimately good player in Brandon (Brandon Wilson), who gets no encouragement from his bitter widower father (T.K. Carter sighting!), who questions why Jack is even coaching when he pissed away a full ride and quit playing right after high school. Jack had his reasons for abandoning basketball, and he his reasons for medicating himself just to get through the day, which become clear over the course of the film. The "what" was pretty much spoiled by the trailers, but the "how" is a tragedy that's unbearably sad (like WARRIOR, THE WAY BACK doesn't shy away from picking at the scabs of traumatic family memories) and Jack is still unable to process it and move on. Coaching gives Jack a new focus and he even drastically cuts back on the drinking, until he's blindsided by a reminder from the past that puts him back on an even more destructive downward spiral than before.


Throughout, Jack repeatedly tells his players "it's the little things" that you build on to ensure a victory. It's also the little things Affleck brings to his character that keep THE WAY BACK on track and allow you to more or less speed-bump over its occasional contrivances and sports cliches dating back to HOOSIERS. The team is almost the Bad News Bears of high school hoops, but when Affleck takes Jack through the daily rituals of functional alcoholism, the film is gritty and real because he knows how it is and he wisely never overplays it for cheap awards bait. Watch the way he works through a case of beer over the course of the evening in a montage of repetition, grabbing one out of the fridge, putting in the freezer to replace the one he's taking out, keeping them ice cold and ready for each trip to the kitchen every five or so minutes. Or his wake-up shower beer. Or the cooler he keeps behind the passenger seat of his truck so he has a cold one ready after work for his drive to the bar. There's a type of rigid preparedness that goes into staying drunk. O'Connor utilizes some long takes, with a memorable one being Jack pulling into his usual bar's parking lot and the camera following him out of the truck and all the way into the bar to his seat, where the bartender welcomes one of his regulars and already has his first one waiting. O'Connor doesn't cut away or break the shot until Jack has effortlessly chugged that beer to the last drop without even pausing. A tailor-made, star vehicle for sure, THE WAY BACK isn't a great film on the level of WARRIOR (I rarely get emotional with movies, but Nick Nolte's performance in that just wrecks me), nor is it quite as inspiring as MIRACLE, but it's a solid sports man-weepie and dad movie anchored by Affleck's best work since GONE GIRL.



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