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The Way Back debuts on HBO having taken a now all-too-familiar track: Theatrical release derailed by COVID-19 lockdowns to a hasty digital VOD debut to subscription streaming services. The movie marks the second collaboration between actor Ben Affleck and director Gavin O’Connor, the first being 2016’s The Accountant, a laughably grotty thriller about a guy who’s an accountant who’s an assassin who’s a martial artist who’s a marksman who’s autistic. Suffice to say, the pair’s follow-up effort doesn’t have a tough act to follow.
The Gist: Jack Cunningham (Affleck) pours a beer into a paper cup to drink on the drive home from his job on a construction site. But he doesn’t go home — he pulls up to Harold’s and pulls some pints, slurs bawdy jokes and barely staggers up the steps to his grungy apartment. He drags himself out of bed the next morning, drinks a beer in the shower, hits the liquor store for a $67 box of cheap booze, goes to his sister’s for a testy Thanksgiving dinner and ignores some phone calls, but makes one to his ex-wife, who had asked the sister how he’s doing, probably because that way she’d get an answer resembling the truth.
The one call he actually returns is from Father Devine (John Aylward), who offers him a job coaching the basketball team at Bishop Hayes High School — the same Bishop Hayes High School where Jack was a superstar all-everything player who led the team to multiple championships in the mid-’90s. They haven’t had jack shit for success since then, and nobody comes to the games, and a homecoming from Jack Cunningham His Damn Self might be inspiring to the community. Jack pounds beer after beer as he practices out loud all the ways he’s going to let down Fr. Devine easily. But he just can’t follow through with the lies he’d have to tell about his life being “too full” right now.
So Jack shows up on the court and, whaddaya know, the team is a ragtag bunch of misfits running around willy-nilly out there. There’s the softspoken superstar who has yet to step up and lead, the ladies’ man distracted by the girls in the crowd, the mouthy center who shows up late, etc. The team routinely gets pantsed, but then really gets pantsed by a squad of arrogant jerks, prompting Jack to curse out his players until the team pastor gives him one of those looks — and then the pastor follows up with a point about not swearing because the Lord doesn’t care much for that, and another point about setting an example for a bunch of impressionable kids, and you know what, one of those points is actually pretty valid.
Pretty soon, instead of hitting Harold’s, Jack is hitting the pillow early. We get a hard-work montage, and some inspirational coachspeeches about working hard and having chips on shoulders, and another montage where the team starts consistently putting the rock through the hoop and winning some games. Jack meets with his ex (Janina Gavankar) and some things are revealed about the why of the way things are. His sobriety seems fragile and precarious, and so does the team’s path to the playoffs. But you never know. You never know.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: It’s hard to avoid comparisons to the Other Affleck Brother’s Oscar-winning performance in Manchester by the Sea. Except The Way Back crosses that bleak melodrama with Hoosiers.
Performance Worth Watching: Affleck truly digs deep and finds the enduring pain and anger at the heart of his character. It’s probably the strongest serious-drama performance of his career (as long as we don’t consider Gone Girl “serious drama”), and without it, The Way Back might have fizzled.
Memorable Dialogue: A piece of a Coach Jack pep talk: “They don’t know adversity. They don’t know what it’s like to get knocked down and have to get back up again. They don’t know what it is to fight!”
Our Take: Three things work in the movie’s favor: One, Affleck’s real-life struggles with alcoholism seem to inform his performance; it feels personal and fully committed, with a sense of truth and dramatic consequence. Two, Brad Ingelsby’s screenplay offers an approach to stories about addiction that reflects our (hopefully) more enlightened times, instead of making the chronic drinker a villain or antihero. And three, the sports action is realistic, tuned to the film’s gritty tone; far too many sports-comeback stories amp up courtside drama to phony-baloney operatic levels.
Our Call: STREAM IT. For a movie that tends to be a downer but is ultimately about hope and redemption, The Way Back ain’t half bad.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com or follow him on Twitter: @johnserba.
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