Tony's Take

THE WAY BACK review

Every Loss is Another Fight

“The Way Back” follows the life of Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck), a man who is facing more demons than he can drown with his alcoholism.  His day begins, contains, and ends with heavy drinking; whether it be his mid-day vodka/gin sipping or his beer case-destroying evenings.  A new opportunity arises, giving him a chance to coach his alma mater’s high school basketball team.  After a meeting with the school’s priest (and a night of thought over heavy drinking), Jack elects to accept the position as Head Coach of Bishop Hayes’ basketball team; after all he was the school’s Phenom and they haven’t made it back to the playoffs since his glory days.  After meeting his rag-tag group of players, he begins by earning their respect and putting any-and-every player in their place.  While the team takes a little while to respond, the results begin to improve and quickly they find themselves winning more games than they ever thought.  With the team’s success and Jack’s focus on the court, his craving for alcohol has tempered and he finds himself enjoying life again.  But when demons from his past rise-up and haunt him all over again, Jack soon learns that he was only masking his problem, not fixing it.

Over the past few years, Ben Affleck has been in the media for a variety of reasons, but most of them stemming from his past abuse with alcohol.  His character, Jack, seems so authentic and one can only question throughout if this is how Ben went through his day-to-day life.  Regardless, his deeply cathartic and moving performance is nothing short of astounding; this is his “Manchester By the Sea”, this is his role that will prove the doubters wrong.  The film’s extended cast, well not overly-featured, is comprised of strong turns from Janina Gavankar, Michaela Watkins, Al Madrigal, and Melvin Gregg; though the whole team of players are rather amusing as well.  The band of kids make the film feel more real and each of them brings their own uniqueness to the film as a whole.

While some of the film involves basketball and his team, this is hardly just a “sports” movie.  Sure, he has some of the necessary montages, which are very “Miracle”-esque, but the film is so much more than that.  Rather than follow the likes of past films (including some of his own), Gavin O’Connor (“Miracle”, “The Accountant”, “Warrior”) expertly uses basketball as a backdrop to the main focus of the film: Jack’s life.  No matter where the roller coaster is, “The Way Back” never lets you forget the most important thing.  One of the most impressive things about the film is what went on behind the scenes, at the 11th hour.  Just as they were nearing the start of production, Ben fell off the wagon and entered rehab once again.  With the film looking to be shelved, it was Ben’s ex-wife Jennifer Gardner who begged O’Connor to keep the film ready and not recast him.  For a man to progress through rehab then explore all of it again through his work had to make this the most difficult and personal experience of his life.  The result is an entertaining, deeply-moving work of art with a tour-de-force performance from Ben Affleck.  This is his career defining moment; don’t be shocked when his name his mentioned come next Awards Season! 

4/5

THE WAY BACK is rated R for language throughout including some sexual references, in theaters MARCH 6TH!