The sports film genre as a whole has been explored over the years and told in many different angles – now, I won’t go as far as to say the entire genre stands in the “been-there-done-that” status, but the brass-tacks is this: The Way Back should ideally offer something that others within its genre have not… and well, it does.
The Way Back is a sports drama film directed by Gavin O’Connor and stars Ben Affleck as a man struggling to regain control of his life and himself by turning a college basketball team from zeroes to heroes. This is Affleck and O’Connor’s second collaboration, their first being the 2016 film The Accountant. Affleck plays the role of Jack Cunningham, a chronic alcoholic in an unsatisfying construction job. Jack hides his addiction, he avoids contact with family and friends, and he’s got a very short fuse. What this story is ultimately aiming to provide is in the titular title of the film itself, that Jack is desperately looking for a way back, to regain control of his life and himself.
Affleck is working in peak form in this role, he strives greatly in expressing aggression and frustration with himself and the world around him. Affleck has a knack for seeming convincingly irritated, but he remains partially muted on the more subtler emotive moments – his micro-expressions are few and far between but those are mostly unimportant as his larger moments excel. This is about as personal as we’ve ever seen Affleck go and it pays off.
So, does this film succeed as a sports flick? Well, yes, but primarily because this isn’t much of a sports film at all. Not only is the sports angle in this film entirely unrelated to what the film is trying to express – but we aren’t shown a single basket-ball game in full throughout the entire film; quite intentionally too. This is a character’s journey and director Gavin O’Connor has no interest in distracting us with multiple drawn-out basket-ball games when these games don’t hold relevance to his character’s journey. Affleck’s bold performance is enough to hold the film together and keep viewers engaged.
While seeing Affleck blackout drunk for half the film is a sight for sore eyes, the overall camera-work in this drama film is rather pleasant. Whether Jack is repeatedly grabbing beers from the fridge and the camera is cutting to it over and over again, or important basket-ball games are abruptly cut short for almost comedic effect, or there’s a shot of Jack simply sitting down staring into space – the editing and directorial vision provide quite a refined mixture of things to feel and experience throughout the film.
What I did notice is that, despite this film’s relatively muted locations and setting, the colors and contrast are quite rich. This film was shot digitally, so clean edges and sharp detail came to no surprise. The score completely fits the tone of this film, somber piano pieces play as Jack downs drink after drink. There are also hopeful pieces in this film which are usually played when the basketball team is achieving success or Jack is on an uptick.
This is a far more accessible and simpler story of a man on a downward spiral than many of the harder to watch films out there about alcoholism and anger issues. This may not be the best sports film out there, or the best film about alcoholism, but it may be the best film with alcoholism in the sports film genre, which I suppose is an admirable feat. But if Manchester by the Sea (2017) is hard liquor, then The Way Back is light beer.