Tuesday, March 10, 2020

the way back

Ben Affleck has long been an actor of particular blankness. He is a gruff, imposing, masculine presence, without much tics to speak of--akin to a certain kind of Hollywood star that lends well to audience projection. In The Way Back, Affleck, who has battled addiction and the ensuing media storms around it, plays a former high school basketball star who is now an alcoholic construction worker. Relationships with his family and his wife, in current separation, are strained. Suddenly, in what seems to be literal divine intervention, he is asked by the head priest of his old high school to coach the basketball team. Through Jack's (Affleck) brash, unconventional style and long untapped personal talents, he whips the team into shape and guides them to hard-fought victories.

This is the simple framework of Gavin O'Connor's plainspoken film, in a similar vein to his craggy sports drama Warrior. We watch Jack before, and also in the midst of, balancing his life as a coach while hitting his local bar, and also sneaking hard liquor into coffee tumblers, and going back again and again to the fridge for cans of beer. The film gets tripped up a little mid-way by giving us the reason why Jack may have turned to drinking and is so emotionally blocked and removed (this also happened in Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea, featuring Affleck's brother Casey in his pent-up Oscar-winning lead--yet, the shape and feel of that film feels both much more organic and elegantly constructed). Both films show the difficulties men can face expressing their emotions and dealing with grief. The Way Back ends up over-explaining in a few treacly stretches. Still, Ben Affleck's effective turn, the sturdy ensemble, Rob Simonsen's bittersweet score, and the grayish, weathered feel (the cinematography is by Eduard Grau) of the movie, helps it stay afloat. It also--thankfully--occasionally eschews some sports drama cliches, which for a mainstream Hollywood movie with a familiar arc, is pretty admirable. **1/2

-Jeffery Berg

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