Jack Cunningham (Affleck) is an aimless man, stuck in a dead-end construction job and isolated from his family. The film wastes no time establishing his dependence on alcohol: there’s an esky in the backseat of his truck after work every day, followed by trips to the local dive bar at night. Having been a basketball prodigy in his youth, Jack is approached by his old high school to coach their struggling team. He accepts, seemingly because he has nothing to lose. You might assume this leads to a cliched story about the coach and team each helping the other get back on their feet, but THE WAY BACK subtly subverted my expectations.
Bad Ingelsby’s script essentially blends two depictions of alcoholism I’ve seen on screen before: the showy powderkeg, and the sneak. While Jack’s friends and family do see him drink until an angry outburst (or becoming paralytic), he’s also the kind of guy who hides drinks in keep cups and empty sodas just to get up in the morning. It’s a confronting choice that feels influenced by the actor portraying him, as Affleck’s hulking frame and macho posturing made me genuinely afraid for the other characters in his moments of rage. Simultaneously, he’s been vocal about his real-life struggles with alcoholism and brings a sense of resignation to the film’s quieter moments, like Jack drinking in the shower. There’s something heartbreaking about seeing such a well-known face glazy-eyed and permanently puffy from a hangover, fixed in an utterly indifferent expression. Although most of Affleck’s career plaudits have come from writing, directing and producing, THE WAY BACK is a reminder of his acting talent.
Jack similarly anchors the other half of the film: the rookie coach turned reluctant role model. It helps that the basketball sequences are energetic and well-shot anyway, but Affleck’s red-faced yelling perfectly conveys his love of the game through a full gamut of emotions, from joy to frustration and makes it easy for the audience to invest. Honestly, from this point I expected THE WAY BACK to find its groove as a heart-warming moral about recovery; in fact, Jack isn’t even shown drinking for most of the second act. This makes it all the more surprising and effective when the story provides context for his depression. It’s a devastating backstory which I won’t spoil, and makes sense given what we know about the character instead of feeling like cheap emotional manipulation.
Unfortunately, the script spends so much time developing its lead that the rest of the film is somewhat vague. The supporting cast aren’t given arcs or many lines apart from Javina Gavankar as Jack’s estranged wife Angela; some of the players in his team are basically glorified extras. No one is outright bad per se and perhaps exploring everyone’s motivations would’ve felt too similar to a straightforward sports drama, though I still felt this was a missed opportunity to establish the audience’s connection with them. There are still elements beyond Affleck that I enjoyed, particularly Rob Simonsen’s beautiful piano-driven score which produces a new, equally memorable motif for each of Jack’s moods and struggles. Overall though, I can’t help but wonder if THE WAY BACK would’ve had more to say about addiction if it didn’t rely on its star being so compelling.
I see THE WAY BACK as simple filmmaking done well. It’s thoughtfully directed, has an emotional story and features a career-highlight performance from a Hollywood darling, all of which will surely make it easy to rewatch. Despite it failing to escape some of the sports drama clichés you’d expect, its twists set it apart as an engaging character study.