We all know Ben Affleck is a great actor and it’s easy to forget it when you factor in his reputation for roles from his early years with Kevin Smith, plus movies like Gigli, and meme-ified lines about him being "da bomb in Phantoms," but it’s true. In The Way Back, Affleck is putting on a show, the gloves are off, and he’s just an actor in front of the camera. No CGI or explosions in the third act can distract the audience from Affleck’s pull on the camera here; no rubber masks, space aliens, or gunfights will hide his performance. That’s not a knock on his work in movies that include such things though, but it’s proof that he doesn’t need them and that, should he find himself in such films again, they would be wise to fully utilize his talents.
With The Way Back, Affleck takes on the role of Jack Cunningham, a washed-up local sports legend that has hit rock bottom and insists on living there. The parallels to Affleck’s real life are clear to perceptive viewers, but this isn’t a movie about him coming to terms with his faults, it's about growing from them and learning to lift up and be lifted up. Frequently staring down the end of a bottle, Affleck’s Cunningham is given an opportunity by the head priest at his former Catholic high school, offering him the chance to coach their basketball team after a tragedy leaves them without a leader.
Though this seems like a plot concocted from a feel-good after-school special, The Way Back is anything but that. It confronts the realities of hopelessness and the forms it takes in surprising and effective ways throughout, which aren’t limited just to its star. Affleck’s Jack is able to pull himself up and out of his slumps because his work with the team gives him purpose and distracts his mind, but as the movie shows us, sometimes even that’s not enough. Jack, like the team, spirals in and out of successes and failures, amounting to a roller coaster that can feel formulaic from the point of view of its genre, but maintains a refreshing quality through to the bitter end, and because of its finale.
Affleck reunites with director Gavin O'Connor for the film, having worked together on 2016's The Accountant, and marks another carefully crafted sports drama for the filmmaker (his previous credits include Miracle and Warrior). O’Connor does really interesting work and movements with the camera, showing a clear mastery of simple, visual storytelling. Though not a comedic level of quick cuts, he’s able to quickly fill in the gaps of a story with montage moments throughout that maintain engagement but also push the narrative forward. Quieter and more intimate moments are given a different level of finesse as well, with some choice zooming effects highlighting Affleck’s isolation and fall.
The troubles with The Way Back stem specifically from its script. For the most part, this is a movie that you’ve seen a hundred times and, though it sticks to the beats and gags one would expect, it’s the sharp left turns when rights are expected that give it life. The movie remains interesting and fun to watch despite those narrative choices, specifically because of Affleck’s performance, who is in literally every scene of the movie, and how Gavin O’Connor brings this world to life.
The Way Back will undoubtedly become a cable or streaming staple after it leaves theaters and the consensus will always be the strength of Affleck’s work. Though he's surrounded by a strong supporting cast who all do well, Ben is the reason to see the movie and this is the reminder of how great he is as an actor. Ben and Gavin make a hell of a team and this is their slam dunk.
Rating: 4 out of 5
The Way Back is now playing in theaters