That was the original title for “The Way Back” when it was announced in June 2018. Harsher than its current title, but still fair, all things considered. The last few years have been a very public gauntlet for star Ben Affleck, whose career in itself has been a rollercoaster ride with which few Hollywood stars can compare. “Batman v Superman” and “Justice League” were mauled by critics and audiences alike, prompting Affleck to eventually give up the role of the Caped Crusader. His last directorial effort, “Live By Night,” was a $75 million bomb. Personally, he went through a divorce and had multiple stints in rehab for alcoholism.
There’s no doubt this movie was designed for Affleck. Gavin O’Connor is a sports-drama expert, directing titles like “Miracle” and “Warrior,” the latter of which also tackles the effects of addiction. The two men worked well together on 2016’s “The Accountant,” which was an off-kilter action flick, but not much more.
“The Way Back” is a showcase for its leading man, with Affleck throwing raw emotion onto the screen. The high school basketball team at the center of the story is fairly by-the-numbers, but thankfully, that’s not where the weight of the story really lies. It’s simply a distraction, for both alcoholic Jack Cunningham (Affleck) and the audience. It’s a film that borders on greatness thanks to this inspired story and Affleck’s powerful performance.
Jack is a loser who wakes himself up in the morning with a hot shower and a cold beer — at the same time. He goes to his job at the docks, shows up late to Thanksgiving dinner at his sister’s house, and throws a drunken fit when she reveals his ex-wife called her to ask how he’s doing. When his old Catholic high school calls and asks him to take over as the new head coach of its basketball team, Jack goes home and gets hammered while he rehearses how to turn down the offer. “My life is very full,” he says, sitting by himself in his kitchen. Cinematographer Eduard Grau isolates Jack throughout the film with his composition and focus. Even when Jack is in a bar full of his old buddies, he appears alone.
Affleck has never been a world-class thespian, which makes his work here all the more remarkable. There’s no swagger, no tough guy energy, and certainly no smartest man in the room vibes radiating off Affleck. He’s just Jack, and Jack is him. He keeps his head down as much as he can with his hands tucked into his pockets. When he’s confronted or upset, he stammers and stumbles over his words.
While O’Connor strings together some fairly entertaining, albeit predictable, basketball games, Jack’s interactions with the people around him in between the games are the real set pieces. One in particular features a player Jack previously kicked off the team for tardiness, Marcus (Melvin Gregg), begging his former coach to reinstate him. It’s stirring to watch Jack, the has-been, show grace and realize that you almost always need someone else to lend a hand and afford you a second chance on the path to self-redemption.
Don’t let the title fool you. This is not the story of how Jack makes his way back to sobriety, a normal life and success. It’s the story of finding the way to those things. Coaching a basketball team and winning games won’t fill the holes left in his heart by a divorce and a traumatic past, and neither will alcohol.
The screenplay is no “Manchester by the Sea” and the film no “Hoosiers,” but it does enough to defy convention in a way that is genuinely emotional and satisfying when the credits roll.
Jack is going to be okay, and I think Affleck will be, too. If his performance here is anything to go by, his very best days might still be ahead.
Star Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Johnny Sobczak is an entertainment journalist and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in Media and Journalism and minored in Global Cinema. Johnny is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has been writing for Inside the Film Room since August 2019; he was named Senior Writer in January 2020. Johnny spends his days job-hunting, watching films and obsessing over every new detail of Denis Villeneuve's "Dune."