Of all the whiplashing high highs and low lows of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the Sad Affleck meme is probably the film’s greatest contribution to the arts and culture as a whole. Henry Cavill’s enthused rambling on the press junket against Ben Affleck’s blank thousand-yard stare is pure ironic goodness, though with all the visible agony in Affleck’s face, you can’t help but feel sympathy for the guy’s internal turmoil as well—it’s layered, man. The Way Back channels this broiling angst from the Sadfleck years into a slightly above average sports drama lean on the sports and heavy on the drama.
Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, a broken, hollowed-out alcoholic who spends his days drinking away the loss of his son to cancer. Wasting away in isolation, Jack is surprised to one day hear from his former high school, who asks him to come back and coach its struggling boys’ basketball team. Though initially skeptical of the proposition, Jack begins to find a renewed sense of purpose as he coaches and bonds with the team throughout the playoff season.
Gavin O’Connor directs with a cool, objective hand, one whose pacing flows well and never lets the film steer hard into melodrama. It’s minimalistic and reserved, but not cold or distant; The Way Back is allowed to settle in and breathe across its moods, plainly earning its emotional weight and scoring a great performance from Affleck as a result. Jack’s plight feels real, and by not begging for your sympathy throughout his journey’s heartful ups and hard-hitting downs, doubles up in earnestly investing you into his story.
After a series of rough affairs in his private life, Affleck pours every ounce of his soul into the film. You can tell how personally involving the role is for the actor, and despite the easy parallels that can be drawn to his real-life problems, Affleck is genuinely great in the role. It’s a relatively restrained performance with sharp spikes of emotional rawness and surprisingly good humor, all handled really nicely by O’Connor behind the camera.
Despite solid acting, no other character is nearly as responsive or fleshed out as Jack, though. A few of the team’s players have a little something going on for them, but their plotlines are either abruptly dropped or not quite developed. The enclosing narrative isn’t much to write home about if you’ve seen even just one other basketball, sports, or plain drama, and while the film is primarily about Jack, The Way Back ultimately loses out by not having more characters or plot to go around.
On that note, the film’s ending is refreshing from the dramatic norm, but also jarringly abrupt. The narrative doesn’t feel complete, almost like its entire third act is missing on the plot and character fronts. It sort of works alongside the film’s mellow tone and the intimate arc of grief and loss surrounding Jack’s character, but you can’t help but feel like there’s something being left out regarding the basketball team and, resultingly, the film as a whole. Honestly, I’m not sure if I liked/respected this lack of an affirmative conclusion or not.
Investing but not too innovative, The Way Back is an okay sports drama with a great lead performance at its center.