Reuniting Ben Affleck with The Accountant director Gavin O’Connor, The Way Back follows Jack Cunningham (Affleck), an alcoholic construction worker. He is soon recruited to train the basketball team of his former high school, where he was a star player.
On the face of it, The Way Back has the hallmarks of an almost cliché sports film with a lacklustre team and a coach seeking success. But despite its formulaic premise, the film more closely resembles a character drama – similar to O’Connor’s 2011 drama Warrior – with Jack’s journey at its core. Separated from his wife Angela (Janina Gavankar), he chooses to spend his time drinking with no set goal in life. Slowly but surely, him coaching his school’s basketball team gives him an outlet to focus on. Using his own painful experience to inspire others, he drives himself and his impressionable team on the road to success and personal redemption.
Although Jack’s recovery drives The Way Back, the film also explores his need for alcohol. Him drinking multiple beers to make a decision is a sobering sight but it is not until a tragedy occurs that we see that booze is a coping mechanism. When old wounds begin to reappear and threaten his career, we see the depth of his addiction that brings a relatable and much-needed realism amid the film’s near-predictable story.
With its alcoholism and redemption-centric narrative, it is no surprise that Affleck gives it his all in his performance. Jack’s evolution into a passionate, focused and aggressive coach anchors the story while his almost wistful expression conceals his need to confront his demons. Supporting cast members such as Gavankar and Al Madrigal bring touches of stability through their performances, but the film ultimately belongs to Affleck.
Almost ten years after Warrior, The Way Back’s character development and subtle reference to a sports background feels all-too-familiar for O’Connor. He adopts a dim-lit visual style that reflects the narrative’s sombre tone, which is reinforced by Brad Ingelsby’s screenplay.
Overall, The Way Back is not exactly the more original concept, with O’Connor returning to a tried-and-tested formula. Thankfully, Affleck’s strong performance saves it from falling into a pit of boredom.
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