The Way Back
2010, PG-13, 133 min. Directed by Peter Weir. Starring Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Saoirse Ronan, Colin Farrell, Mark Strong.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Jan. 28, 2011
There have been questions raised as to the veracity of the events depicted in this grimly functional "based on a true story" man vs. nature narrative, but no one can question Peter Weir's eye for thrilling, chilling detail. Ed Harris, as one of a multinational "league of nations" escaping the ice-and-lice-encrusted hell that was Stalin's Siberian gulags circa 1941, pretty much defines the story's stoic tone. Looking ever more the progeny of granite and grit, Harris' weatherbeaten visage presents the perfect metaphor for this band of intrepid, nihilistic refugees, who according to semi-accepted wisdom (the film is based on Slaomir Rawicz's book The Long Walk), trekked some 4,000 miles on foot from the furthest reaches of Siberia, across Mongolia, the Himalayas, and the Gobi desert, to freedom in India. Harris' cagey curmudgeon, Mr. Smith, puts it bluntly right off the bat when he tells new gulag arrival Janusz (Sturgess) that "kindness will get you killed here," and, indeed, small mercies are in woefully short supply as this sextet of the damned makes a mad dash out of the gulag and into the teeth of a howling blizzard (the better to hide their tracks), and from thereon into all manner of natural and man-made perils. Essentially a tale of the indomitable human will to survive, The Way Back is more notable for its mind-bending visual depiction of this insane trek (the film was shot on location in Pakistan, Morocco, and Bulgaria) than anything it has to say about either Stalin's brutality or the human spirit (surprise! it's uncrushable!). Cinematographer Russell Boyd, who also lensed Weir's last testosteroned outing, Master and Commander, frames the fleeing men (and, eventually, one woman) against all manner of rapturously harsh terra firma, relentlessly reducing them to tiny figures surrounded on all sides by impossibly arduous imagery. Ultimately, however, The Way Back fails to connect on the all-important visceral, emotional level. It's a grueling, nightmarish trip, to be sure, but by the time the survivors reach India, you find yourself wondering if Colin Farrell's Russian mobster Valka had the right idea when he dropped out early, unable to fathom the idea of leaving behind his beloved Mother Russia.