The Way Back
2020, R, 108 min. Directed by Gavin O’Connor. Starring Ben Affleck, Janina Gavankar, Rachael Carpani, Lukas Gage, Hayes MacArthur.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., March 13, 2020
In the history of Bishop Hayes High School, there has never been a basketball player quite like Jack Cunningham (Affleck). But that was a lifetime ago, and Cunningham has spent the intervening years slowly retreating from the world after the death of his son. When his alma mater asks him to step back onto the court as the new head coach, Cunningham is initially reluctant. Soon, though, he comes to realize that this may be the last in a series of second chances afforded him by life.
With titles like Warrior and Miracle in his filmography, you’d be forgiven for thinking director Gavin O’Connor had assembled another blue-collar sports success story here. You’d be about half-right. Much of The Way Back mirrors the traditional underdog sports narrative, including scenes between Cunningham and his young wards learning to lean into their hustle. Cunningham quickly recognizes that the student athletes at Bishop Hayes are too small to play a more traditional form of basketball, so he drills into them the need to be faster, smarter, and angrier than their opponents from the first whistle. Their success, when it comes, is theirs and theirs alone.
But the film’s sports movie core only provides the framework for the story. O’Connor is far more interested in offering a study of a broken man. The opening scenes quickly establish the small ways in which Cunningham indulges his alcoholism. One shot of whiskey mixed into his thermos at the end of the day; several beers at the local bar; another beer in the shower the following morning. Rarely do we see this depiction of a functioning alcoholic on film, a man who not only drinks to excess but also measures the passage of time in the number of drinks he’s able to fit into his schedule. It’s not the sort of setup that suggests clean payoffs, and The Way Back often sidesteps familiar narrative beats for moments of absolute desperation.
And through it all, Affleck disappears into Cunningham, exhibiting the same working-class star power that once turned him into a Hollywood star. Affleck has spent his entire career in the spotlight; as a result, he is uniquely suited to understand how his onscreen and offscreen personas can bleed into and inform each other. The character of Jack Cunningham may not push his skills as an actor beyond what we’ve already seen, but it is the kind of empathetic self-destruction that Affleck does best. We recognize the skill and project his personal narrative in equal measure, and the film is all the better for both.
The Way Back spends most of its run time making the difficult decision, and the final few minutes of the film offer a moment of hope that both satisfies and feels at odds with the grounded storytelling of the first two acts. However, as a showcase for Ben Affleck, The Way Back is a welcome return to form. Affleck has himself fallen out of favor just as often as Cunningham. If O’Connor’s film is to be believed, better days are ahead for both men.