The Way Back movie review: Ben Affleck elevates humdrum addiction film

Ben Affleck’s struggles with addiction has been headline fodder for years, along with that back tattoo.

So it’s tempting to read his performance as an alcoholic has-been in his latest film The Way Back as some sort of on-screen avatar for his personal demons.

At the very least, it lends an authenticity to his character – you believe that Affleck has looked at that glass of amber beer with self-loathing, before all restraint went out the window and despair took over.

Whatever The Way Back’s faults – and there are a few – Affleck is not the problem. His performance is a low-key, convincing turn imbued with pain and frustrations. Above all, you sense that this character is tired, exhausted from everything that’s been thrown at him.

His choices never feel overwrought, where previously in his earlier career he might’ve been tempted to dial it up 20 per cent.

It makes Affleck’s character incredibly sympathetic and you don’t judge him for his choices, even as he’s cleaning out a fridge-full of beer in a one-night bender.”/>
media_cameraBen Affleck’s performance is easily the best thing in this movie. Picture: Richard Foreman/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP

It’s a shame then that The Way Back as a whole couldn’t match the calibre of Affleck’s performance.

Directed by Gavin O’Connor, the movie is centred on a construction worker, Jack (Affleck). He’s divorced, lives in an untidy, sad apartment and ends every night either drinking alone at home or at a rundown bar where the owner keeps refilling his glass.

He’s isolated himself from his family, including his sister Beth (Michaela Watkins), who doesn’t know how to help him.

Out of the blue, he gets a call from his old high school, where as a student he was a star basketball player whose flair on the court earnt the team state championships and him a full scholarship to university, even though he didn’t take up the post.

The school needs a head coach, and they want Jack. The team is a ragtag group of boys with some raw talent but little focus – and they’ve been on a losing streak.

Up against better teams, Jack’s hand sees them fighting back, and he instils hope in these boys, especially the taciturn Brandon (Brandon Wilson) who has a natural instinct for the game.

Coach Ben. Picture: Richard Foreman/Warner Bros. Pictures via”/>
media_cameraCoach Ben. Picture: Richard Foreman/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP

The Way Back is essentially two movies.

There’s the fairly generic underdog sports movie in which the dismissed team proves their mettle – complete with training montages and fast-paced game sequences.

There’s value in the basketball scenes in that the teens are likeable if underdeveloped as characters. But there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before.

Then there’s the alcoholism movie in which Jack is just trying to deal with the day-to-day of living with this addiction, which we’re led to believe spawns from his father and a tragedy revealed midway through the story.

The Way Back feels disjointed because it doesn’t weave the two plots together very well. When the team starts to do well, the drinking seems to subside, or at least it’s not shown on screen. Maybe that’s how it works – Affleck should know – but it doesn’t make for a consistent narrative jumping around in tone.

O’Connor’s directing style varies from un-showy to occasionally hokey, resorting to too much slow-motion or cheesy fade-outs.

The Way Back is a humdrum movie saved from complete tedium by an affecting Affleck performance.

Rating: 2.5/5

The Way Back is in cinemas now

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Originally published as Ben Affleck confronts his personal demons

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