by Omri Curnutte
In 2014, Ben Affleck was at a mid-career peak. He’d never been as good of a selector of quality roles as his friend and writing partner, Matt Damon, had been in the previous decade, but things were looking up. Coming off of his Best Picture win for Argo (a solid thriller that would be more fondly remembered if it hadn’t won Best Picture) the year before, he found himself starring in Gone Girl, a vital step in Affleck’s trajectory. There, he was in on the joke, utilizing his bulky figure and affable demeanor to great effect as a means to interrogate his own public persona. It was a self-reflective and intelligent performance, something people often undersell Affleck as capable of. Up to that point it was his finest hour. Affleck maneuvered that trajectory into a high-profile role as Batman. His take on the legendary superhero in the unjustly maligned Batman v Superman was powerful and looming, as well as aged and beaten down. Then, something happened. That same “Affleck as Batman” did not resurface in Justice League. In that film, the actor himself was beaten down. He was going through a divorce and was in the midst of several alcoholic relapses and rehab visits. Roles taken between 2015 and 2018 were marked by an overwhelming sense of fatigue. After three duds in the stop-start DC Cinematic Universe, a failed directorial effort in Live by Night, and dropping of directing and starring in a standalone Batman film, most of the goodwill built up in the first half the 2010s had been washed away.
In the lead up to The Way Back’s release, Ben Affleck publicly unveiled his baggage. Sobered up and regretful of the circumstances of his divorce, he came across as a man who has had to make tough decisions in order to better himself. He has pulled no punches in acknowledging the true-to-life aspects of his character in The Way Back, Jack Cunningham. Both suffer from alcoholism, have separated from their wives, have bottomed out in their careers and now have a chance to change that. It’s a role he claims was easy to tap into, but watching him on the screen, it seems as if Affleck is pulling off a monumental task.
When we first see Jack, he’s working on a construction yard, smuggling booze in his stainless-steel coffee cup. Jack is nearing 50 and going nowhere. He’s a ghost whose past successes literally hover over him as banners in his former high school gym. Nobody sees him anymore except his family on holidays and his fellow patrons at the bar he drives to every evening, only to be carried home every night. Marketing may sell this film as an uplifting sports drama, but the opening scenes make it clear this is more about the man than the team. This was a smart decision on director Gavin O’Connor’s part, who tackled high drama in the sports world once before in his 2011 mixed martial arts film, Warrior. He knows how to handle this delicate material, trusting the audience’s intelligence in figuring out the extent of Jack’s alcoholism. He’s high-functioning and pleasant around his family on Thanksgiving, deftly avoiding discussing his reasons for lateness and generally appearing to handle himself responsibly. Only then do you realize barely one shot has gone by where he doesn’t have a drink in his hand. He opens his fridge to reveal a shelf full of beer cans and nothing else. He taps on each cold one with a nervous jittery thumb that reveals a shame he’d like to stamp out and bury. By the end of the night, the fridge is empty, and cans litter the balcony in the morning. These are movements that I’m sure were familiar and easy to recall for Affleck, but his willingness to portray it plainly, without tipping the scale into overwrought, is striking.
Jack accepts a job as a coach of the same basketball team he once played for and took to the playoffs when he was in high school. Wisely, O’Connor lets the basketball scenes play out without having them overtake the drama as the focal point. The games are shot with clear coverage, and the action is legible and easy to follow. The handheld camera gives the games a raw feel, while Jack’s coaching is coherent and exciting to watch. The team doesn’t spend too much time opposing their new coach. It’s not that kind of sports film. The rapport is established quickly, and Jack clearly cares about his job and these kids. The games act as more of a building block to the team’s progression. They steadily get better and more in synch. There is a neat visual motif at the end of each game with a freeze frame and a score bar highlighting the winner. There are no emotional post-game speeches. All you need to know regarding their strength as a team is right there before you. The more important moments are between Jack and the individual players. For a fairly long stretch of the film, the bar he frequents disappears while Jack is fully engaged with this team. When it returns later on, its arrival is wholly unwelcome and a bad omen.
Jack lost not only his wife to divorce but also his son to cancer. His grief is hidden for most of the film’s runtime, retroactively making sense as the cause of his downward spiral. In his team, he sees not only kids who are older than his son got to be, whose lives he can truly impact, but also athletes who can go farther than he ever did when he turned down a scholarship in his youth. He cannot go back, but he tries his hardest to get these kids to go forward.
When he relapses due to a moment of loss, Affleck is truly heartbreaking. Jack is not prone to lashing out in anger, so the rare times he does are momentary and explosive. When his outburst comes late in the film, it is a lashing out from a state of helplessness. Everything is piling up on Jack and it feels unfair. It’s raw but also subtly true, withholding any histrionics.
There are no easy answers in the way the film resolves. There’s no big game that will solve everyone’s problems if they win. There’s only a team with a lot of promise and a man who has started to recover and live for the future instead of being suffocated by the mistakes of the past. Affleck plays the role as if he’s exorcised a lot of demons with this film. It’s therapeutic work, and it signals a healthier actor who has learned the same lessons he and O’Connor bestow upon Jack. In the upcoming decade, Affleck has a lot of work lined up, including a medieval period piece with Ridley Scott (co-written with Matt Damon) and Adrian Lyne’s first film in 18 years. After a rough patch, Affleck seems back on the trajectory he deviated from after Gone Girl. If it sticks, The Way Back should be regarded as the necessary turning point, an excellent performance in an ambitious and considerate sports drama.
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