Cast: Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Michaela Watkins, Janina Gavankar
Director: Gavin O’Connor
As much as I love sports movies, I have to admit most of them aren’t exactly known for being the deepest and most complex movies of all time. While enjoyable, many tend to come off as shallow, one-dimensional, and made purely for entertainment purposes. Luckily, The Way Back breaks that mold and provides some of the deepest character development from a sports movie in years. Led by yet another strong performance by Affleck, The Way Back showcases the damage of generational trauma, the reality of unutilized potential, and the consequences of dealing with stress in unhealthy manners.
The film follows Jack Cunnigham (Affleck), an alcoholic construction worker who was a talented basketball player in high school. When his former school is looking for a head basketball coach to work with their struggling and under-talented team, Jack steps up and embraces the role and the new challenges that come with it. Over the course of 108 minutes, we watch as Jack goes through the traditional journey associated with many sports movies, but then we see the issues underneath the surface that morphed him into the shell of a person that he is today. I’m truly surprised with just how strong a script The Way Back had and its ability to give Affleck the room to explore all of the tragedies associated with Jack’s life. It’s almost a character study on Hoosiers if you combined Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper’s characters into one, and while in most scenarios this would come across as too bloated, The Way Back feels balanced and meaningful every step of the way. Specifically, Affleck handles all of the stress associated with his character and used his real-life trauma as a basis for how the character should be. Given his history with alcoholism, he can provide true insight into the struggles a man like Jack goes through on a daily basis and how the actions of our past can dictate the way we cope in the present. O’Connor directed one of the best sports movies ever with Miracle, so it’s no surprise that he has another hit on his hands. Some people may believe that The Way Back suffers due to packing so many unique issues into a mid-length movie, but taking into consideration what the movie tackles, it does so in a reasonable and balanced effort. It’s more so a reflection of life as a journey and not so much any issue in particular, so I understand why The Way Back doesn’t go too far into any one particular topic. This is easily the best performance we’ve seen from Affleck in years and shows that he still has what it takes to be a mainstay in major movies. Between its compelling characters, captivating lead performance, and plot that you can emotionally invest yourself in, The Way Back easily establishes itself as one of the best sports movies to come out in recent memory and overcomes its pre-made obstacles to stand out as one of the best movies of the year so far.
Overall, The Way Back combines a road to recovery with real, dramatic topics in a way that even most traditional dramas would have a hard time doing. To a degree, it’s almost a drama with sports serving as the setting, and that’s part of what makes The Way Back so special. Between this and The Last Duel, Affleck is slated to have a huge year, so it’s only a matter of time before he’s back in the spotlight. While it may be a little heavy for some viewers, The Way Back is something that traditional sports audiences will enjoy as well as those looking for true character struggle and development.
Overall Score: 8.5/10