Sometimes, a role comes around at just the right time. For Ben Affleck, opting to take the lead in “The Way Back” is not merely a situation where he chose strong material. This deeply emotional and gripping sports drama is also a form of therapy for the actor. Having gone public about his struggles with alcohol, it’s impossible not to see him playing an alcoholic and wonder about the parallels. Moreover, that real-world struggle with demons has fueled Affleck’s best performance, one wholly deserving of Oscar consideration. His revelatory performance takes an already intense drama and elevates it to the best film of 2020 so far. This is the sort of effort that reminds you why Affleck became an A-list star in the first place. He delivers on a whole other level, suggesting an exciting future for the years to come.
“The Way Back” has the skeleton of an inspirational sports story, the sort of movie we’ve seen dozens of times before. The blood and guts of the story, however, is about a broken individual, one both closed to possibilities and also desperately seeking an outlet for pain. In that way, this is closer to a “Manchester by the Sea” than a “Hoosiers.” Director Gavin O’Connor takes what worked so well in his previous sports tinged dramas “Miracle” and “Warrior,” ups the emotional stakes, and strikes gold.
Jack Cunningham (Affleck) has shut himself off from the world. He works on a construction site by day and sits at a bar at night. In between, whether it’s at work, in his car, or even in the shower, he has a beer in his hand. A Thanksgiving dinner with his somewhat estranged family reveals how little he visits, an ex-wife (Janina Gavankar) who contacts his sister (Michaela Watkins) to check upon him, and more drinking. Then, his high school approaches him, seeking a new Varsity Basketball coach. Jack, being the best player in the school’s history, is an obvious fit. He wants to decline, but in his drunken stupor, he can’t find a way to say no. The next day, he meets his assistant coach (Al Madrigal), and then the team, a talented yet undisciplined bunch who can’t find ways to win. He quickly gets to work, whipping them into shape.
As Jack breaks through to players like Marcus (Melvin Gregg) and Devon (Da’Vinchi), he begins frequenting his bar less. He’s still drinking all the time, but coaching has become the new obsession. It’s a delicate balance, however, and various meetings with his ex trigger a painful moment in their past that threatens what little progress he’s made. For Jack, the drinking is a way to dull the pain, one that’s only fully apparent to him. In short order, he becomes worse and worse. While the team meshes and begins to make waves, Jack’s moving closer and closer to the point of no return.
Ben Affleck truly deserves his first acting nomination for his work here. He gives his all, combining three hugely compelling parts of his character and channeling them into the best performance of his career. Affleck makes Jack a coach you’d run through a brick wall for, an alcoholic you can’t look away from, no matter how ugly it gets, and a grief-stricken man you wish would ask for help. His evolution is a slow burn wonder. At the start, he’s insular and charming, though quick to keep everyone at a distance. Then, as the team stirs something within him, the demons are fighting with his better angels for brain space. Finally, when one side wins out, and he finally speaks to his pain, it’s the most heartbreaking we’ve ever seen the man.
He’s flown under the radar, but at this point, Gavin O’Connor has cemented himself as one of this era’s best sports movie directors. The filmmaker has a keen knowledge of how to make a grown man cry over sports, but he holds back on that here. Instead, he finds emotional satisfaction there but goes for the heartbreak in Jack’s personal demons. Armed with Brad Ingelsby‘s perceptive script, O’Connor drills down on how grief can be a gateway to further tragedy. Eduard Grau‘s cinematography gets up close and personal on Affleck, allowing him to showcase every bit of anguish on his face. At the same time, Rob Simonsen composes a score that hits all the right beats, though never suggests how to feel.
“The Way Back” does traffic in some cliches, but they’re largely the best and most effective ones, eschewing the genre’s eye-rolling moments. Both the coaching aspect and the alcoholic aspect mix in sections that recall other cinematic efforts, but as soon as a cliche arrives, a singularly unique sequence pops up. That mixture helps give the flick a unique flavor and set it apart from the pack. Without it, this would be a rock-solid movie with a perfect Affleck turn. With it, it paces the field for the first part of 2020.
Any fan of Ben Affleck’s owes it to themselves to see “The Way Back.” Watching him, as well as his character, struggle with this disease is one of the year’s crowning achievements so far. In interviews, he’s revealed that some of the drinking quirks Jack has are relics of his own days opening beer cans and that only adds to the depth of the performance. The film is phenomenal, but Affleck’s performance is even better than that. Don’t miss it!