Blu-ray Review: The Way Back

The Way Back is marketed as a basketball movie, but it’s really the story about a man’s struggle with his demons, the choices he’s made and his attempt to find his way back on the right path after steering himself off course years prior. Make no mistake, there’s quite a bit of basketball in the film, and the story of these kids rising to the occasion and learning to believe in themselves is a good one; however, it feels like it’s there more as a metaphor of the film’s protagonist, Coach Jack Cunningham’s (Ben Affleck) story over focusing too much on the team itself and their individual struggles and hardships like many “new coach comes in to help the aimless team with a bad record” sports-centric films.

Now let me just say right out of the gate that Affleck is absolutely brilliant here, delving into his own history as an alcoholic to really showcase how crippling this disease can be. His masterful work here is the main reason to watch this film, as he gives the character nuance that an actor simply researching alcoholism for a part just wouldn’t capture in the same way. It truly is a tour de force performance, and while it’s unlikely it’ll be celebrated in the form of awards, it should definitely be appreciated for just how deep into his own psyche Affleck went to really try to show the true affect that alcoholism can have on a person, and those they care about.

It’s clear watching Affleck here that doing this film was also a cathartic experience for himself as well. The emotional roller-coaster that the audience is taken on as the layers are peeled away from Jack as the film goes on is only elevated by Affleck completely opening himself up here, allowing himself to be as vulnerable as the character he’s portraying and not being afraid to just go to the places that are required of him – or even if he was afraid, still jumping in head first and using that fear as a motivator.

The film is about Jack Cunningham, a guy who wakes up and takes a beer into the shower with him, still buzzed from the binge he passed out from the night before. We see he basically wakes up, drinks, heads to work (filling his travel mug with vodka instead of coffee) before ending the day by driving to the bar while drinking a can of beer he leaves on ice in the back of his truck. He’s not happy, but he’s also not looking to change anything because the drink numbs the pain.

Not long after he receives a call from Father Devine (John Aylward) at the Catholic high school where Jack had been a star player while he attended. Father Devine tells him that their basketball coach had a heart attack and they needed to replace him, to which Jack was the first name to pop into his head. Unaware of the demons Jack is struggling with, Father Devine offers him the job and after a night of deep thought (and over a dozen beers) Jack decides to take on the challenge.

As mentioned above, the film isn’t so much about the team and their stories as it is about Jack trying to straighten out his own life through taking on this new gig. We learn a bit about the players, but aside from Brandon (Brandon Wilson,) none of the players really play much of a part. Brandon is the player Jack takes the most notice of right from the start, though he sees Brandon is quiet and doesn’t push to be a voice on the team even though he knows the game better than anyone else there. His story works well alongside Jack’s, but it was really nice to find that there was a different direction to this story by screenwriter Brad Ingelsby than the usual from zero to hero sports team drama.

Yes, this is Jack’s story about seeking redemption and the basketball side of the story is just another layer to Jack’s tale that weaves together wonderfully from start to finish. In fact, the basketball team is actually the weakest part of the film, only because it’s not where the film chooses to focus. That doesn’t mean it’s ever boring to watch them play, it’s just that all the players aside from one are two-dimensional and they don’t carry any true weight to the story aside from needing bodies to fill out the team. Though that shouldn’t detract you from watching, as The Way Back is so much more than its marketed to be, and it features what’s easily one of – if not the best performance of Affleck’s career.

The film looks great, really capturing the feeling the story is going for with cooler tones, and a more neutral palette. The blacks are rich and the darker scenes are never muddy, and there really isn’t a part of the film visually that doesn’t pull you into Jack’s story on every emotional level that’s required to make the movie succeed.

The Dolby Atmos mix shines through, with the basketball games sounding fantastic and the score outside of the games helping to carry the emotional weight to the struggles that Jack battles with throughout. Everything sounds fantastic, and that’s really important in a film like this as the last thing you want are distractions that pull you out of the moment when you should be invested the most.

Special Features:

The Way Back: This Sporting Life –
This featurette sees Director Gavin O’Connor and Affleck talk about the film, as well as sports and how competition can help us learn more about ourselves.

Every Loss Is Another Fight: The Road to Redemption – This featurette focuses more on Affleck, and he and O’Connor talk about how Ben tapped into his own life and demons to really bring the character of Jack to life in a way that only someone who struggles with alcoholism could truly do. It’s a quick, yet fascinating watch. Also, Ben looks fantastic in the interviews here! He looks 10 years younger than he does in the film – at least!

Warner Bros. Pictures Presents The Way Back. Directed by: Gavin O’Connor. Written by: Brad Ingelsby. Starring: Ben Affleck, Brandon Wilson, Michaela Watkins, Janina Gavankar, Al Madrigal, John Aylward. Running time: 108 Minutes. Rating: 14A. Released on Blu-ray: May 19, 2020.

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