Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The Way Back Smartly Uses Hallmarks of Sports Movie For a Complex Tale of Addiction

In addition to exploring crime dramas (Pride and Glory), thrillers (The Accountant) and Westerns (Jane Got a Gun), director Gavin O'Connor has now helmed a trio of sports dramas. The first of these was the 2004 hockey tale Miracle followed by the criminally underrated 2011 feature Warrior. Now he's returned to this genre with The Way Back, though, much like Warrior, the focus is less on the sport itself and more on the personal lives of the people embroiled in the sport. Specifically, this is a yarn about struggling with addiction, one that can't help but echo many of the own trails and tribulations of The Way Back's leading man, Ben Affleck.

Affleck plays Jake Cunningham, a man we meet living a humdrum life alone. He works as a construction worker by day, he spends his nights in a tavern, all the while he's likely got an alcoholic beverage in his hand. One day, he receives a phone call from the Catholic High School he used to attend. Back in those days, he was the schools' star basketball player and now the institution would like Cunningham to use his skills to become their newest basketball coach. At first, it's a job that Cunningham thinks sound ridiculous and like a distraction from his detached life. Eventually, he comes around to the idea and takes on the title of coach, a position that isn't a perfect match for his foul-mouthed and brash persona.

Over the course of the movie, though, Cunningham begins to connect with some of the students on his team and the job he didn't think he wanted becomes something that he may have needed all along. From here, you might think you know where The Way Back is headed but Brad Ingelsby's screenplay has some welcome narrative flourishes in store for both Cunningham and the viewer. The best of these is how The Way Back features a shot that would totally be the triumphant ending of any traditional sports movie, complete with a slow fade-out shot transition...only for the story to keep going. Not only that, but Cunningham's personal woes get worse despite the fact that his life seems to be headed upward.

It's a smart storytelling decision that uses the outline of a conventional sports movie for something exceedingly more complex and compelling. The gravity of what Jake Cunningham is going through as an addict echoes a phrase used repeatedly in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings that states "You're never not an alcoholic, you're just an alcoholic who stopped drinking". Cunningham's addiction looms large over each scene of The Way Back and the feature manifests this in a number of innovative ways. These include Gavin O'Conner repeatedly framing the character of Cunningham so that the audience constantly sees him ensnared in some of entrapment. Sometimes this means framing him in between two objects (like opposing side of a window) or having a surface like a wire fence or a car windshield between Cunningham and the camera.

Through this visual motif, O'Conner reinforces how, even if Cunningham is putting on a smile and turning a scrappy basketball team into winners, he's still trapped by forces larger than himself. It's a theme poignantly reinforced by Ben Affleck's raw lead performance. Throughout his career, Affleck has constantly been placed lead roles that don't really give him a chance to explore material that cut to the bone emotionally. Even his Best Picture winner Argo saw Affleck playing a CIA hostage negotiator whose personal problems are depicted in a muted manner, they never result in anything emotionally visceral. It's surprising Affleck has rarely gotten a chance to handle that sort of hefty material given that his best work as a performer is still one of the most emotionally devastating scenes in Good Will Hunting.

Such a sequence see's his character being upfront to Matt Damon's protagonist about how Damon's character has "...a chance to do something I'll never do." In this scene, Affleck communicates with impressive believability a man's brutally honest examination of himself. That sort of warts-and-all authenticity finally gets a chance to emerge again with his work in The Way Back. Matching the attitude of the screenplay, Affleck doesn't hesitate to embrace an appropriately messy depiction of addiction. Such a performance comes complete with genuinely unnerving moments of raw anger on the part of Cunningham to other people around that effectively depict how much this character has isolated himself from those around him. Affleck's tortured lead turn makes it no mystery why Cunningham has become so distant from the outside world.

It's a haunting lead turn that helps to not only reaffirm Ben Affleck's chops as a performer but also cements The Way Back as an extremely thoughtful take on addiction. There are certainly a few shortcomings in the production, most notably in the lack of development for certain supporting characters like Cunningham's sister and certain kids on his basketball team. But on the whole, The Way Back echoes Gavin O'Conner's Warrior in being a movie that becomes so emotionally engrossing because of the way it doesn't hold back its punches when grappling with darker material.  That's the kind of trait that makes The Way Back, like the aforementioned Warrior, a movie very much worth seeing.

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