Director: Gavin O’Connor
Starring: Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Michaela Watkins
Running time: 108 minutes
Verdict: This time it’s personal for Affleck
Ben Affleck knows a thing or two about spectacular falls from grace. Presumably, that’s why it feels as though he has so much skin in this performance.
The two-time Oscar-winner dials right back on the star wattage for The Way Back, a beautifully observed study of a once-promising basketball player now living off the fumes of his teenage glory.
Jack Cunningham’s puffy eyes are a dead giveaway — whatever he’s drinking out of that Thermos cup, it’s not coffee.
The slight angle at which he parks his beat-up pick-up truck confirms it. As does an Esky full of beer in the back seat, but one of the appealing things about Gavin (Warrior) O’Connor’s film of Brad Ingelsby’s screenplay is the attention to small details.
It’s clear from the naturalistic opening shot of a construction site in Los Angeles’s San Pedro region that The Way Back is not going to be a conventional sports underdog story.
Hell, the guy even looks like a manual labourer, not just a Hollywood version of one.
The familiar plot points are there:
Cunningham is roused from his alcoholic stupor by a phone call from the headmaster of his Catholic alma mater.
The coach of their uncompetitive basketball team has just had a heart attack and the priest is hoping Cunningham will take over.
Initially reluctant, the broken man eventually steps up, transforming the rag-tag bunch of players and vice versa.
But like a jazz musician’s reinterpretation of a standard tune, The Way Back puts its emphasis on unexpected beats.
The scene in which Cunningham wrestles overnight with the headmaster’s unexpected job offer is a fine example.
Making his way determinedly through an entire slab of beer, the former star player rehearses his rejection message, working through arrogance, impotence, dejection and self-loathing to something like a glimmer of curiosity.
Cunningham’s team might be made up of types – the showboat, the fat clown, the dark horse, the free rider – but that storytelling shorthand doesn’t reduce the players to caricatures. And their metamorphosis into a real team is muscular rather than mawkish.
In the end, however, they’re really just the vehicle for Cunningham’s redemption.
The Way Back – which was originally entitled The Has-Been – is Affleck’s film.
The reasons behind his self-imposed isolation and bottled-up anger, his failed marriage and his strained relationship with his family, are deftly interwoven into the plot.
The film’s resolution is more conventionally rousing than what has preceded it. But by that point, it feels as though the characters have earned it.
The Way Back is now showing