Saturday 15 May 2021

Movie Review: The Way Back (2020)

A redemption drama, The Way Back benefits from an in-form Ben Affleck as it navigates overly familiar plot markers.

Construction worker Jack Cunningham (Affleck) drinks his way through his days. A former basketball star at Bishop Hayes High School, Jack lost his love for the game and is now separated from his wife Angela (Janina Gavankar). He ignores pleas from his sister Beth (Michaela Watkins) to ease up on drinking.

Father Devine of Bishop Hayes invites Jack to return as coach of the boys basketball team. He reluctantly agrees and gradually transforms the unmotivated and under-performing group of players into a competitive team. But Jack's personal demons are never far away.

Despite featuring decent on-court basketball action, The Way Back is less about the sport and more the story of an alcoholic stumbling his way towards something resembling a light at the end of a dark tunnel. As such, the Brad Ingelsby script provides only cursory definitions for the boys on the team. Jack does help one player find his voice and emerge as a leader, and knocks back the team's individualistic showboater to demonstrate the importance of the team, but overall his influence is more on the collective than individuals.

Director Gavin O'Connor instead focuses on studying a functioning alcoholic. Jack is never unattached to a drink, whether at the work site, in the shower, in his car, at home, at his coach's office, visiting his sister, or drowning the night at his favourite hangout. The scenes are repetitive and numbing, but achieve the purpose of hammering home the mental state of a man too emotionally devastated to care. Affleck's brooding presence fills the screen with quiet anguish, providing The Way Back with most of its pull.

Moments of humour do sneak into the drama in the form of Jack's foul-mouthed tirades clashing with a Catholic school's sedate code of conduct. But as the history of Jack's pain is revealed, the narrative starts ticking off cliches. The separation from Angela, who is now seeing another man, is only the start. Also in Jack's backstory are daddy issues, substance abuse, and familial loss, and the sources of his scars are described rather than shown. With his traumas representing a succession of hammer blows, Jack is a walking tapestry of recognizable cinematic tragedies.

The Way Back is an arduous retreat from the brink, a worthwhile journey despite the well-trodden path.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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