“The Accountant” was one of my favorite films of 2016. Director Gavin O’Connor delivered a unique, multi-genre piece of filmmaking with a dynamite Ben Affleck as the title character. Now O’Connor and Affleck reunite on the drama, “The Way Back”. For the most part, this is a much calmer and more straightforward movie — and exactly the movie Affleck needed right now.
If you’ve seen the commercials or the trailer — or just look at the poster — it’s easy to assume that “The Way Back” a sports movie. Affleck does play one-time basketball star Jack Cunningham, and he does get recruited to coach the struggling boys team at his former Torrance, CA. high school.
And yes, there are a number of scenes involving Cunningham coaching his players and arguing with referees, all leading-up to the big, pivotal game. But, yet — it’s actually difficult to call “The Way Back” a sports movie. And that’s a good thing. Basketball is not the key element in the story. It’s simply the vehicle which allows Cunningham to attempt a comeback — in his life.
The Brad Ingelsby script (he also penned Liam Neeson’s “Run All Night”) mirrors some recent real-life drama for Affleck. Cunningham’s been separated from his wife for a year, and he’s also a serious alcoholic. O’Connor intentionally provides scenes of Affleck consuming beer after beer, downing shot after shot. It all feels painfully real.
We get to understand every ounce of Cunningham’s emotional fragility — on and off the court. His frustration turns into rage, his sadness turns into desperation. Affleck’s trembling voice and looks of devastation are eerily authentic. His commanding performance allows us to tolerate the film’s lighter elements and inevitable sports cliches.
In the third act “The Way Back” slows down and become much more predictable. But, in this case, the switch in tone works, as it re-focuses us on the subject of the movie: a desperate man looking for something to grab onto so he can resurrect his life.
“The Way Back” is not a feel-good, underdog against the odds, crowd-pleaser. Hollywood’s already made plenty of those, all available on disc or streaming online. But it is a winner, as once again, the team of O’Connor and Affleck are able to blend genres and themes to tell a personal, raw, human story.
LCJ GRADE: B
Running Time: 108 min.