‘The Way Back’ Is a Sympathetic Look at the Dangers and Sadness of Alcoholism and Loss

Photo Credit: Warner Bros

Perhaps I am alone on this, but I have never seen Ben Affleck as a great performer. He is an actor who has often found himself in roles that just suit his public persona, a self-deprecating laid back dude from Boston. Unlike his directing ventures, his roles never truly have him flex his talents in any meaningful way, or at least that’s what I’ve always thought.

Many are calling The Way Back a return to form for Ben Affleck, for me, it is as if I have discovered an under the radar talent in the business. Affleck simultaneously sheds and embraces much of his public persona for this role, particularly the most recent controversies surrounding his marriage, alcoholism, and troubles within the business.

The Way Back follows Jack Cunningham, a construction worker, who lives a solitary life and drinks; a lot. He is one of those “functioning alcoholics” as he is able to still get up in the morning to drive himself to work after a stupor the night before. However, such a life is near impossible to maintain, nor should you maintain it. His family are concerned about him, but they don’t confront him head on (although that may have done him some good). One day, he gets a call. His old high school needs a basketball coach, and he happened to be the one and only star player from decades ago.

Photo Credit: Warner Bros

Director Gavin O’Connor is rather methodical over how he tells this story. It is a universally understood tale of the dangers of bad coping mechanisms, but also incredibly personal to his leading man; there is the danger of being exploitative. O’Connor doesn’t shy away from having Affleck live his life experiences through this character, with many of the characters’ life mirroring Afflecks in subtle and obvious ways. The one thing I would note that perfectly sums up O’Connor’s delicate touch is Affleck’s back tattoo. You see glimpses of what Affleck himself has described as a low point in his life. O’Connor never shows it to you nor does he feel the need to display a rather personal choice that Affleck literally carries on his back. The urge to do so is certainly there, but we are only given glimpses from overhead shots of Affleck.

The Way Back is not about the basketball, or the team. The basketball elements serve as the B storyline that fleshes out Jack. It also serves as a means of showing what is possible for Jack if he were to focus on something good. And for those who are concerned, this is not a white saviour movie, it just feels that way because of the casting. If anything this is a devastating look at how alienating and toxic alcoholism is. Jack could have been a character in any environment with any kind of job, interacting with an entirely different group of people, and the story would largely remain the same.

Photo Credit: Warner Bros

With that in mind, O’Connor doesn’t deploy fancy filmmaking techniques to dramatize the story. Affleck carries that load on himself. He gives a rather nuanced portrayal of a broken man who is compelled to drink his sorrows away. Cunningham is in the midst of a come back, a way of life that would be good for him, but he has depended on drinking so much that one little set back send him over the edge. It is sad to watch, as he is tapping into his own personal experiences to capture this performance.

By the end, the main lesson learned is that the struggle with alcoholism is a long and difficult road. The Way Back is an upsetting and sad look at alcoholism and grief that is depicted with care and respect. Nothing here is made for spectacle or laughs. O’Connor and Affleck have created together a film that is nuanced and personal that may be the wake up call some may need.

The Way Back is out in cinemas now

by Ferdosa Abdi

Ferdosa Abdi is a lifelong film student and aspiring film festival programmer. Her favourite genres are science-fiction, fantasy, and horror and her favourite director is Guillermo del Toro. She is madly in love with Eva Green and believes she should be cast in everything. You can follow Ferdosa on Twitter @atomicwick

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