'The Way Back' Review: Ben Affleck Makes A Winning Comeback In A Sturdy Sports Drama

It's difficult to talk about The Way Back without mentioning Ben Affleck's personal life. The star has been a fixture of tabloid headlines since the very beginning of his career, his square jaw and all-American looks — coupled with his less-than savory dating life — making him the perfect tabloid fodder. Even as Affleck made his transition from generic leading man to prestigious director, his personal life remained a source of fascination for moviegoers. It's a tragic symptom of the celebrity news cycle that Affleck's recent struggles with divorce and alcoholism would come to eclipse his career successes. But after a short hiatus from making movies to attend to his personal well-being, Affleck makes a two-fold comeback with The Way Back.

Directed by Gavin O'Connor (reuniting with his The Accountant star), The Way Back is a standard sports drama that doubles as an affecting redemption story — for both Affleck and the character he's playing. Affleck stars as Jack Cunningham, a former high school basketball star who drowns himself in alcohol every night to distract from the loneliness of his divorce and his dead-end construction job. But an unexpected job offer from his old high school jolts him out of his stupor, and Jack reluctantly ends up taking on the job of coaching a struggling basketball team that hadn't competed since he had played 30 years ago.

The role is very clearly a vessel for Affleck to work through something difficult and personal to him (the star has said it himself in interviews leading up to The Way Back's release), but Jack feels like more than just a star's therapeutic exercise. Affleck lends a remarkable physicality to the character, his shoulders permanently hunched, his baggy clothes barely hiding his bloat as he shuffles between his job and the local bar, where a kindly bar patron Doc (Glynn Turman) helps him stumble home every night. Much like Jack keeps everyone around him at arm's length, including his concerned passive-aggressive sister (Michaela Watkins, giving 100% in a rather thankless role) and even the players on his basketball team — barely bothering to learn their names at first — so does O'Connor's direction keep the audience at arm's length. O'Connor effectively communicates a bleak working-class realism through muted grey palettes and a heavy tone, though it's a little at odds with the film's sunny San Pedro setting (I was convinced for half the movie that it took place in some desolate midwestern town before I saw the palm trees). But as the film unfolds and Jack's walls come down, so does the movie surrounding him. O'Connor subtly brings in a warmth to his grey palette as Jack begins to open up to his team, who are there to save him as much as he's there to save them.

It's not entirely accurate to call The Way Back a sports drama. Jack's shaping up of the underperforming basketball team, albeit the most familiar aspect of the film, is probably its weakest. The team's arc from underdogs to unexpected champions, hits all the beats of the sports drama formula, down to the training montages to Jack's encouraging of the team's sensitive star player (Brandon Wilson) to break out of his shell and reach his potential. But it's clear that the sports aspect of the story is second priority to Jack's redemption arc, though his becoming a basketball coach is essential in initiating his transformation.

But there is something more to The Way Back than a simple message of "sports good, help people." As a newly motivated Jack draws up gameplay strategies in his hard hat and construction gear, it occurred to me: is this why men go to war? Is this why they are so attached to playing, watching, coaching sports? Does having some greater calling inspire them to break themselves out of their cycles of self-destruction? The Way Back certainly teases that there are such easy solutions to the endless, exhausting beatdown of life. Jack and the other adults in his orbit all walk through life with a weary resignation, but light up with every game and the hope that it offers: for the new generation, for their work to affect someone. But unexpectedly, reality comes crashing in. Halfway through the film, we learn that Jack and his ex-wife (Janina Gavankar) had lost their son to cancer, leading to their divorce and Jack drowning his troubles in alcohol. It's a quiet revelation that marks a turning point for the film — from being about a man who must overcome his own self-induced troubles to examining the long, hard road that is grief.

While The Way Back is pure melodrama, it adds a real sensitivity and depth to its formula. It rarely dips into the mawkish, instead offering a quiet, stolid vision of one man's road to recovery, anchored by Affleck's tremendous performance. The rest of the film and its cast somewhat fades into the background, as befitting the sturdy mid-budget drama that The Way Back embodies — the films that were so common 20, 30 years back that were often great star vehicles within a predictable but affecting story. But the relative flatness of the rest of the film allows Affleck's powerful and raw performance to truly shine.

But despite its formulaic nature and its somewhat predictable beats, The Way Back extends beyond the typical sports drama by acknowledging the fantasy of it all: that one basketball game triumph becomes the easy solution to his problems that Jack is dreaming of. The road to recovery is hard work, and as The Way Back reveals, the work is never over.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10