Review: ‘the way back’

Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) was a remarkable basketball player in high school, but like many extraordinary teenaged athletes, he resigned from what could have been an impressive collegiate and professional career.  When we meet Jack, he’s an alcoholic with a unkept beard that stems from his severe depression. He pours beer into a plastic cups and mugs disguising it as coffee. He’s an on-site construction worker who frequents the liquor store once his shift is complete, taking swigs of hard liquor straight from the bottle and watches basketball on TV at night in his small, run-down apartment. He even quaffs liquid before he visits his niece and nephew for Thanksgiving dinner, being confronted by his sister Beth (Michaela Watkins) and her earnest concern regarding Jack’s loneliness and constant inebriation. Jack’s frustration pierces through at the dinner table once he finds out that his wife Angela (who he’s separated from) called his sister Beth to ask how he’s doing, without calling him instead.

Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) in The Way Back, Warner Bros 2020

Father Edward Devine (John Aylward) is the Priest at the Bishop Haynes Christian High School where Jack was once a Champion when he attended. Father Devine sets up a meeting with Jack at his office to inform him that their current basketball coach suffered a heart-attack and they’re in need of a new head coach. Jack sleeps on this proposal, ripping through a 24-pack of beer in contemplation. He smokes cigarettes and practices different messages to leave on Father Devine’s voicemail. There’s vulnerable scenes of Jack in the shower, portraying a man’s solitude at his most susceptible state, where he bears his soul and cleanses. Except his pain is unfathomably arcane as he needs to drink in the shower to cope.  A can of beer is conveniently placed near the shower rack, as he sips amid the watering pouring down his face. The camera is mounted innovatively above the shower head, creating more seclusion for his character from the audience by capturing a shot from above. 

Jack reluctantly accepts the position and is introduced to the school’s basketball team. He puts their shooting percentages in the spotlight with the help of the Assistant Coach Dan (Al Madrigal) who’s also a Mathematics teacher on campus. Jack puts players on blast by calling attention to who should be shooting three pointers, who should stay in the paint, or the key, further emphasizing to the squad that just because they make shots, it doesn’t necessarily mean they should take them if their overall shooting percentage is low. After a quick pep talk prior to the team’s first game of the season, there is a freeze frame followed by the final score superimposed on-screen, displaying their loss. This is an inventive tactic that’s used throughout the film in order to avoid wasting precious screen-time with highlights.

Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) and Angela (Janina Gavankar) in The Way Back, Warner Bros 2020

The cinematography captures the emotions of the actors in illustrious detail by implementing long-takes in conjunction with very subtle zooms on characters expressions through extreme close-ups. There is a scene when his wife Angela (Janina Gavankar) reveals she’s seeing someone else and has moved on after being separated from Jack for a year. The magic of her deeply heartfelt performance is that she doesn’t tell us she’s moved on, she shows us, through her reaction to Jack’s question. She doesn’t have to speak a single word. We can read it in her eyes. She invites Jack to their friend’s son’s birthday party to which Jack doesn’t respond. It’s evident to us that she’s distressed about something and wounded.  Jack’s pain is worse than hers, causing him to spend his free time at bars drinking with his coworkers with harmonious musical melodies composed on the soundtrack by Rob Simonsen.  

Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) and Father Edward Devine (John Aylward) in The Way Back, Warner Bros 2020

During one of Bishop Haynes’ earlier games in the season, Jack goes off by shouting obscenities and swearing incessantly during the game. The team priest, Father Mark Whelan (Jeremy Radin) reminds Jack about the school’s code of conduct in using appropriate language to support the teams mission of developing men of honor and loyalty. He imparts to Jack how imperative it is for him to refrain from undervaluing the righteous influence he can have on the players. “Father, with all the terrible things that go on in the world, do you think who’s ever up there really gives a shit what I say to these kids?” Jack asks on the bus ride home after a night game. The father confidently responds, “As Christians, we are called by God to integrate our faith into our daily lives. So, yes, Jack, I do think he gives a shit about the example you set for these young men. Don’t underestimate the impact you can have on them.” Jack is silenced by this in contemplation. Gradually, Jack is the one being coached on life, while playing the role simultaneously.

He develops genuine relationships with his players. Most notably Brandon (Brandon Durrett), an athlete who understands the game better than everyone else on the team, but doesn’t have the encouragement of his father to get a scholarship and play at a collegiate level, as his father firmly believes that there’s no future in the sport for his son to make living off of basketball. There’s also Marcus (Melvin Gregg), the tallest and toughest of the crew who lacks punctuality and swears incessantly, like Jack. And then there’s Kenny (Will Ropp), who seduces three different girlfriends as a player on the court and off. Jack perseveres in his own struggles as well as dealing with the antics of these three players, attempting to teach them the path of virtue. Their involvement with him in return, the thoughts of steadily progressing toward a sober life. The story advances with montage sequences between games and training sessions as Jack and Dan spew basketball terminology with strategy sessions on bleacher steps while the players train, in addition to managing the team on bus rides home while Bishop Haynes begins to win several consecutive games, improving their record and gaining momentum for playoff potential.

Warner Bros. 2020

Except this not a basketball movie, the sport serves as a backdrop to a profound premise that is concealed for almost two/thirds of the plot. The real essence of this story is the shocking unraveling of mystery behind the reason why Jack and Angela have split explaining why both are equally saddened by their detachment. This plot point is executed adroitly by the film’s director, Gavin O’Connor (Warrior, Pride and Glory), and once its discovered, we’re almost empathetic toward the reasoning behind Jack’s alcohol addiction. Instead of being told why Jack and Angela split, we’re shown why, through emotion and imagery which is the essence of a movie. Basketball is just the vehicle that drives the significant themes forward by utilizing picture-perfect pacing and magnificent dialogue that’s realistically filled with plausible rebuttals between the characters toward their objective in the scene. This is an authentic performance by Ben Affleck who bravely pours out his heart for us to view. And it’s genuine. You can see it in his eyes. His character is suffering. It’s obvious that this performance was personal to him. This is a glorious film filled with virtue and integrity. If you’re interested in seeing the human condition displayed for you on film, then watch Ben Affleck and Janina Gavankar bare their souls to us in The Way Back, a glorious picture about love, family, coping, despair, friendship, fatherhood, marriage, hope, faith and above all, what it means to be a Christian.

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