The Way Back
Ben Affleck, Janina Gavankar, Michaela Watkins
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… just another average sports drama.
After finding surprise success in 2016 with the autistic power fantasy The Accountant, director Gavin O’Connor has reunited with Ben Affleck for a decidedly less specialised feature. Affleck plays the role of Jack Cunningham, a former high school basketball player who, after years of struggling with alcoholism, may have found his means of redemption as he takes up a coaching position at his old school.
Anyone who has kept up with Affleck’s tabloid coverage over the years will see something of the familiar in this character, to the point where he actually relapsed during pre-production for this film. However, while the prospect of spending an hour and forty with drunken Sad Affleck might induce some eye-rolls, the man has shown a knack for turning his public persona into real pathos on-screen; look no further than his career highlight turn in David Fincher’s Gone Girl.
Thankfully, this holds true to that pattern, as Affleck’s persistently sporadic temper and roughed-up visage add melancholic textures to his performance. The cyclical depiction of his day, rotating beer cans between the fridge, the freezer, and to the table, hits the right tone for this kind of sloshed character study. It may lack the depressive energy of a Nic Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, or the existential doubt of Chris Rock in Top Five, but for a more subdued look at a life through a frame of darkened-brown glass, he holds up well.
However, there’s only so much that lived experience can do to cover up how rudimentary this is as a sports drama. The title may be referring to Jack’s redemption, but it might as well be describing the machine that Brad Ingelsby used while writing this, because it is ‘80s sports movie cliché to a tee. The down-on-his-luck loser who gets a new lease on life through coaching a team of sporting misfits, most of whom come from rough homes; the slow-motion shots for the climactic moment of a given game; a character ending up in hospital to give the main character impetus to push forward; the additional fall from grace around two-thirds of the way through; etc. Even when the film tries to buck against some of those trends, particularly with its ‘Zen in the art of shooting three-pointers’ denouement, it still doesn’t break through just how familiar this all is.
While it’s possible to get some kind of gratification out of how bone-chipping the story can get in regards to Affleck’s public life, along with the catharsis he must have gotten from working through it in such a fashion, that only legitimises this as art therapy, rather than art for its own sake. Those with a stronger tolerance for the tropes of the genre, or even those who have stuck closely to the Ben Affleck story so far, might find something worthwhile here, but otherwise, it’s just another average sports drama.