Ben Affleck has been such a major figure in tabloid culture for years now that a) the lines between his real life and his cinematic one have gradually gotten fuzzier and b) the ongoing turmoil in his personal life has made it easy to forget that with the right role, he can still be an extraordinary actor. In The Way Back, those two aspects of this talented man’s life intersect in a way that turns what could merely be a rote weepie into something much more affecting, anchored by Affleck’s powerful, raw performance.
Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, a one-time high school basketball star who abruptly abandoned the game instead of riding it into college and beyond. When we meet Jack, he’s deep in the throes of alcoholism: he needs a beer just to get through his morning shower, sneaks vodka into his water bottle on the construction site he works at, and immediately heads to his local bar after work where he is often carried home by old family friend Doc (Glynn Turman). We soon glean that Jack is separated from his wife Angela (Janina Gavankar), although she and Jack’s sister Beth (Michaela Watkins) are still extremely concerned for his well-being and for the deeper, unspoken pain that he numbs with his drinking.
No one is more surprised than Jack when he gets a call from his alma mater: the head basketball coach there has had a heart attack and the principal, Father Devine (John Aylward), asks Jack to take over the failing, seemingly hopeless varsity team. Working with assistant coach Dan (Al Madrigal) and team chaplain Father Whelan (Jeremy Radin) — who, respectively, sense Jack’s inner struggle and object to his salty language on the court — Jack finds a way to turn the Bishop Hayes Tigers around and seemingly get himself back on track. But the question is whether both can be sustained.
On the surface The Way Back sounds like the kind of sports drama and redemption tale we’ve seen plenty of times before, but director Gavin O’Connor (Warrior), writer Brad Ingelsby and Affleck manage to carve something more out of it. Affleck seems to channel his own personal demons directly into Jack in a performance that is complicated and vulnerable, slowly peeling back the shell that Jack has encased himself in until we get to the heart of the agony that drives him into the bottle every night. Affleck once again proves much better at playing regular working class guys than vengeful billionaires who fight crime with high-tech toys (although he wasn’t too bad at that) and does perhaps the most personal, emotionally naked work of his career here.
O’Connor, meanwhile, handles it all in an understated manner, mostly avoiding more showy melodrama for a grittier narrative that is enhanced by the real-life Southern California (mostly San Pedro) locations. But the most effective trick that he and Ingelsby pull is building the story up to a cathartic moment — even employing the kind of freeze frame and fade that you often see at the ends of these kinds of stories — only to pull us back in and make us realize that the issues Jack is facing don’t just go away on their own with a big win or a decisive action. When the film does end, it’s on a much more ambiguous and nuanced note.
Since this is mainly Jack’s story, the other characters tend to take a back seat, but Madrigal, Watkins and Gavankar all get just enough to work with to make the people closest to Jack into real human beings. The team, unfortunately, gets somewhat more shortchanged. With the exception of Brandon (Brandon Wilson), the squad’s most talented yet taciturn member, the boys are mainly defined by a single trait: the cocky would-be star, the heavyset clown, the Romeo who blitzes his way through the cheerleaders. The diversity of the team and their town is acknowledged, but the players themselves mostly don’t make an individual mark even despite several exciting game sequences.
Still, you will almost certainly find yourself rooting for both the Tigers and their tormented coach, thanks again to the same raw humanity that O’Connor brought to the two brothers and MMA fighters at the heart of the equally earnest Warrior. As for Affleck, who previously worked with the director on the interesting if flawed The Accountant, the title of The Way Back no doubt has significance in more ways than one. Here’s hoping that Jack and the man who plays him so eloquently can find their way back for good.
The Way Back is out in theaters this Friday (March 6).