Ben Affleck gives a compelling performance as Jack Cunningham, a self-destructive alcoholic seeking redemption as the coach of a Catholic high school basketball team.
Addiction is no small thing. If there’s one thing Ben Affleck knows; it’s this. Both on and off the screen his battle with alcohol has been well documented. Knowing this, I can only imagine the difficulty in playing a character that hits so close to home.
Luckily for us, Ben Affleck’s turn as Jack Cunningham offers an irreplaceable authenticity as we watch his precarious behaviour spiral out of control. He’s self aware enough to know that what he’s doing is wrong but the compulsion to indulge in his pain proves too powerful, claiming victory over Jack’s suffering at every opportunity.
This sentiment, of a man drowning in sorrow, has been captured brilliantly by director Gavin O’Connor. Jack’s addiction and consequent depression seep into every crack of his world, impacting and affecting everyday life. He works construction; but can’t make it through the day without chugging back a few gulps from his hip flask, stashed in the truck’s glovebox. There’s a scene early on that really stuck with me. We see Jack in his house, alone. He opens his fridge door to reveal a bevy of beers. He takes one to drink but as he does this, he then places another in the freezer to chill while he knocks one back. When he’s finished one beer, he then takes the icy cold brew that’s been waiting in the freezer, and replaces it with one more, again. And again. And again. Until damn near 20 beers vanish during one sitting. It’s this attention to detail that sets ‘The Way Back’ apart from similar films, the hopeless morality of wanting to show restraint by choosing to place a singular beer in the freezer as if to say “one more and then I’ll stop” but inevitably falling victim to the cycle of self destruction attributed to alcoholism. It’s real and it’s believable.
Going nowhere fast Jack is tossed a life-line when he gets offered the position of head coach for his old high school basketball team. Hesitant at first but after some persuasion (and drunken monologuing) he decides to take the gig. It becomes immediately clear he’ll have his work cut out as we’re introduced to the dismal Bishop Hayes b-ball squad. Thus far, they’ve been coasting through L’s under the tutelage of assistant coach/ algebra teacher, Dan (Al Madrigal) who boasts an excellent performance as both, idyllic role model to the students and warm-hearted friend to Jack. There’s a long road ahead in order to get this ragtag bunch up to par and additionally, he’ll need to do it while confronting ex-wife Angela, (Janina Gavankar) whose character is treated with equal respect to her emotional grievances, she’s more subtle than Jack but you feel her pain just the same.
Jack’s basketball glory days are well behind him however he retains a love and respect for the game that helps carry to the team to their first few wins. The games themselves unfold in joyous fashion as director Gavin O’Connor demonstrates his prowess in conveying fast paced, engaging sequences like we’ve seen in his other sport related titles, ‘Warrior’ and ‘Miracle’. With ‘The Way Back’, he does an excellent job of placing you right in the drama of a high school basketball game.
For all of its intricacy in handling sensitive themes and the cast’s strong performances all round, it has to be said that ultimately this is a redemption story set in the realm of sport. There’s only so far the confines of the genre will allow itself to drift so it’s fair to say that ‘The Way Back’ doesn’t necessarily break new ground in terms of story but that’s not to say it makes viewing it any less enjoyable. Movies centred around sports tend to work because A – who doesn’t love an underdog story? And B – they serve as a parallel between the players overcoming the odds and seeking triumph, and with the person leading them to it.
With ‘The Way Back’ we get the best of both worlds: on one hand – an enjoyable underdog story filled with great action sequences where we rally behind the team, and on the other – a deep intrinsic depiction of addiction and the damage it inevitably brings with it. It’s a troubling way back but in the end, you’ll most certainly have a smile on your face.