REVIEW: ‘The Way Back’ (2020) Fails to Reach its Potential

Rating: 3 out of 3.

“It is undeniable that Affleck’s performance is incredible, and it makes the film worth watching for it alone, but beyond that there isn’t much else to grasp onto here.”

Ben Affleck’s career arc may go down as one of the strangest in Hollywood history. At the age of 25, Affleck won an Oscar for writing Good Will Hunting and, along with his friend/co-winner Matt Damon, looked like he was going to have a strong career. Whilst Damon has steadily, albeit with some issues along the way, maintained a level of stardom and respectability, Affleck’s career trajectory is almost the opposite.

Immediately following Good Will Hunting he went into a downward spiral of failed projects: Bounce (2000), Pearl Harbour (2001), The Sum of All Fears (2002), Daredevil (2003), all culminating in the back to back blows of Gigli (2003) and Jersey Girl (2004). At this point, he stepped back and did some supporting roles and rebranded himself as a director. His first two features Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010) were well received and both got Oscar nominations, thus setting his career back on track. This is all before his third feature, Argo (2012), managed to win Best Picture.

By this point, everything should have been going Affleck’s way, yet excluding Gone Girl (2014) history seemed to have repeated itself for Affleck, with Batman V. Superman (2016), his passion project Live by Night (2016), and especially Justice League (2017) underperforming both critically and financially.

In addition to an up and down career, Affleck has been the subject of intense personal issues. He went through a public divorce with Jennifer Garner and had to go into rehab, all of which painted a grim image for Affleck.

So why is this relevant to The Way Back? In many ways it is relevant because this film is essentially all about this history. To call the narrative of this film a meta commentary on Affleck’s career and personal life would be an understatement, as almost everything here mirrors his life in some way or another.

Affleck plays Jack Cunningham in this film, a former basketball prodigy, separated from his wife, and suffering from chronic alcoholism. Jack is asked by his former teacher, Father Devine, to step in as a couch for their basketball team which has fallen from glory, much like Jack himself, since he last played there.

Ben Affleck and Jeremy Radin in “The Way Back.” Warner Bros.

Understanding Affleck’s biography is so important to the film because that is ostensibly the only really compelling thing about the film. Affleck is genuinely fantastic here, and it’s evident that drawing from his personal life has helped to inform the performance, providing it with a sense of authenticity and respect that could be otherwise missing from it.

It would be easy to describe this performance with buzzwords like “raw,” yet that is the most apt way to describe it. Jack spirals further into his alcoholism, along with the false promises he makes to himself to quit. There are montages of him drinking his nights away and the self-isolation caused from it. This is all handled so well by Affleck. He transposes so much of his personal life into the performance without ever losing sight of the fact that he’s playing a character.

It is undeniable that Affleck’s performance is incredible, which makes the film worth watching for that alone, but beyond his performance, there isn’t much else to grasp onto.

Ben Affleck and Michaela Watkins in “The Way Back.” Warner Bros.

His relationship with the team is quite nice in parts, but fails to culminate in anything truly emotionally resonant. He bonds with them, but beyond the scenes of them bonding, little is done with the team themselves. We see them strategize for matches, and slowly grow better through Jack’s coaching but that’s something that’s expected. We’re never given a strong enough reason to care besides Jack’s own investment in it.

The same can be said for Jack’s relationship with his family, which forms a significant part of the film. There are some nice moments between them, but not enough time is dedicated to them to make it truly impactful.

These two issues can be somewhat blamed on the film’s ending. Without giving anything away, the film ends on a rather dry note. It feels as if it simply stops rather than truly culminating into anything. I appreciate that the film doesn’t offer a simple solution to his alcoholism, but I feel like there is a midpoint between having everything resolved neatly and how the film itself ends.

Not much can be said for the work of director Gavin O’Connor, who does what it is required of him, but aside from a few minor interesting choices, O’Connor isn’t bringing much of note directorially. He clearly works well with actors, as every supporting role in the film is solid and services Affleck’s performance appropriately, but it feels that the commitment and investment Affleck brings to the film is missing in him. It seems much more like O’Connor is there to assist Affleck rather than bringing anything of his own to the film.

It almost makes me wish Affleck simply directed it himself, as it feels like he may have been able to cultivate the personal experience he brings to the film as an actor in his directing, which isn’t present in O’Connor’s direction.

Still, the film works. If you come in only looking for a good performance from Affleck you won’t be disappointed. It is disappointing that the film itself cannot live up to the quality of his performance, as it could have been something truly special, but it is still competent where it needs to be.

Director: Gavin O’Connor

Writer: Brad Ingelsby

Cast: Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Janina Gavankar

Producers: Jennifer Todd, Ben Affleck, Gavin O’Connor

Available now to rent or buy digitally