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There’s an irresistible external narrative attached to Warrior director Gavin O’Connor’s new alcoholism drama The Way Back: the addict at its centre is played by Ben Affleck, an actor only recently embracing sobriety. While prepping the movie, Affleck was also entering rehab and has spoken since of how playing the role was a unique form of therapy, an intriguing real-world dimension for a film that reads on paper like familiar plane movie fodder. Because the other off-screen journey is that of a project slated for an awards-friendly, festival-bowing October release yanked back to the first weekend of March, a month not typically associated with serious-minded adult dramas.
The story of an alcoholic who finds redemption by coaching a high school basketball team, The Way Back sits awkwardly between muted character study and Disney sports movie, mercifully shying away from sentimental cliche yet failing to add enough depth to work as something more substantive. It sleepily hits the beats we expect but without the emotion or passion required to make them land, a by-the-numbers exercise from someone with barely enough energy to count.
Affleck is Jack Cunningham, a former high school basketball star whose days consist of working in construction and whose nights revolve around drinking himself into a stupor. What the film does manage to successfully convey is the sheer joylessness of drinking to excess for many addicts. Often on screen, we’ll see an alcoholic start the night as the life and soul of the bar before then falling into self-pitying darkness, but there’s something bracing about that being replaced with a sort of resigned compulsiveness instead. In one of the best scenes, we see Jack spend a night at home with a fridge filled with 30-odd cans of beer. His well-rehearsed routine of placing one in the freezer while starting another leaves him with an empty fridge by the time he mumbles himself to sleep, a bleak window into his lonely weekday life.
When he receives an offer from his old high school to coach the ailing basketball team, his initial instinct is to turn it down and what the film is less successful in showing is why his mind then suddenly changes. The majority of the basketball plot feels like it’s been implanted from elsewhere as the script, co-written by O’Connor and Out of the Furnace writer Brad Inglesby, has precious little interest in fleshing out the specifics of Jack’s coaching. There’s no real journey here to speak of: he arrives, barks a few orders, they start winning every game. It’s all far far too easy and so what should have been rousing is instead decidedly flat. O’Connor who previously made the more openly formulaic sports pic Miracle for Disney, is clearly aware of the crowd-pleasing structure of the subgenre and he recycles it here adequately but without any real verve. The kids Jack coaches are ciphers, with two or three of them allowed a brief scene each, but none of them ever coming close to resembling an actual person and there’s no real detail in any of his advice, no scenes of them trying and failing to work better as a team. It just sort of … happens.
While, as mentioned, there’s a bit more specificity to Jack’s drinking, it’s not handled with quite enough depth to counter the shallow nature of the sports side of the film. His addiction is easily explained away as the result of a traumatic event in his past, a pat reveal which ignores the messy reality that sometimes people just drink too much without experiencing something devastating first. The scenes between Jack and his ex-wife are perfunctorily scripted and, playing her, The Morning Show’s Janina Gavankar has an entirely thankless task, exemplified most brutally in their final scene together, which denies her a single line of dialogue. It’s really just a vehicle for Affleck, and a fitting one at that, and he’s solid at underplaying what could have been a more outsized role. But O’Connor pulls back so much at so many moments that there’s not a great deal he can really squeeze out of his character, who like everyone else in the film feels sorely underwritten.
The Way Back is a film stuck on the runway, quietly circling around, always threatening to fly but never managing to get off the ground. It was a cathartic experience for Affleck but for the rest of us, it carries very little weight.
Source: The Guardian
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