As if answering critics of his sleepy-eyed performance in The Last Thing He Wanted, Ben Affleck makes one Hell of a rebound with The Way Back. The sobering (literally) drama is unlike anything the actor has ever done before. Gone is the cocksure attitude that accompanied his good looks, in favor of a quiet, understated portrayal that we all know hit him close to home. Affleck’s personal demons that inform his heartfelt turn are always lingering in the background, but he puts in the work and elevates a redemption story that is familiar and yet completely its own.
From the moment we’re introduced to Jack Cunningham (Affleck), it’s clear this is a guy on the ropes. A construction worker hidden behind thick sunglasses and a heavy beard, he keeps to himself mostly. That’s probably to hide the alcohol he keeps in his coffee mug, which was preceded by the beers he had at breakfast, or the one he had in the shower. At nights, he keeps ice cold brews on standby in the freezer, swapping them out with well-practiced ease. This is when he bothers to even be at home, and not at the nearby bar tossing them back with the other regulars.
A lean yet powerful drama, The Way Back doesn’t cut any corners or short-shrift on Jack’s anguish. Nor does the script by Brad Inglesby (Out of the Furnace) do much dawdling; within minutes Jack is asked by Father Devine (John Aylward) back to his alma mater, the parochial Bishop Hayes high school, to fill-in as head coach for their struggling basketball squad. The team has fallen on hard times since Jack’s championship days, and nobody expects a miracle, ironic considering the presence of underrated Miracle director Gavin O’Connor. After a full case of beer, a lot of attempted refusals, and some soul-searching, Jack gives in.
You can probably guess where the story goes from here, but the story beats aren’t what we typically expect from sports dramas and redemption stories. The team is, predictably, quite awful and a bunch of knuckleheads. They have talent but no ability to work as a unit. Jack steps in and immediately overturns the apple cart. He’s stuck with the team’s mousey but loyal assistant/algebra teacher (Al Madrigal, low-key great), who is willing to let Jack’s abrasive language and methods slide because he’s a proven champ. When players get out of line, Jack is quick to punish, but he also instills in them a toughness they never had.
The team’s successful turnaround is key, but never overpowers the arc Jack truly needs. That’s not something we’re ever led to believe he’ll find by winning a big game. “You have to chip away at it”, he tells the team as they claw back from a possible blowout. But that might as well be a metaphor for Jack’s life, which we later learn has been racked by unbearable tragedy. The arrival of ex-wife Angela (Janina Gavankar, terrific as always) reveals the depth of the misfortune both have suffered. It drives Jack’s self-destructive tendencies but is never framed as an excuse for them.
We’re seeing the emergence of Affleck and O’Connor as one of those star/director duos that work better together than with anybody else. Having previously collaborated on the hitman savant film The Accountant, they instinctively know when to let the other take charge. Sometimes that means letting Affleck fully drop his guard, perhaps pulling from his own personal reservoir of regrets, to express Jack’s sorrow over past mistakes. O’Connor plays fast and loose with the basketball scenes, although they have the authentically-messy feel of high school competition. He often chooses to skip past the embarrassing losses, all in service of getting back to Jack’s story away from the court. It’s a decision some will find frustrating, but this isn’t a basketball movie. It’s a life movie, with basketball as just another component. The players’ individual struggles don’t really resonate as a result, although many are teased. Jack’s story, while always compelling in a “When will he hit rock bottom?” way, could’ve used some pairing down. The question lingers as to why his basketball career ended, but the reveal is forced and unsatisfying. It’s enough to know that it was derailed, we don’t need the specifics to sympathize with him.
The Way Back constantly upends genre expectations, taking a full-court view of what it means to win at the game of life. Affleck, who has made no secret of the impact making this movie had on him, is deserving of whatever praise comes his way. His career isn’t hurting and he’s in no need of a comeback, but it’s good to see him making movies again that he is truly invested in. That is a victory in itself.