September 24, 2020

The Way Back stars a terrific Ben Affleck as a grieving alcoholic basketball coach

I like watching Ben Affleck perform. He has a bit of an old-school movie star quality about him, taking up space on screen, drawing your eye wherever he goes. He’s a big man, and when he emotes, you can feel the energy vibrating off of him. The quality of his movies has varied wildly over the past few years (and his last film, The Accountant, directed, like this film, by Gavin O’Connor, was actively bad)but he has that distinctive quality that marks out a movie star — no matter who he’s playing, you don’t forget you’re watching Ben Affleck perform.

But for years, the off-screen Affleck has overtaken the on-screen one, fodder for tabloid gossip (largely about his addictions and disintegrating marriage to Jennifer Garner) and “Sadfleck” memes that furnished a public narrative for private turmoil. The problem with being a star is that if people are thinking about you while you’re acting, they’re bringing all your baggage into watching your movie.

That’s why The Way Back seems like the most appropriate vehicle for Affleck now as he fights his way out of what seems like some serious darkness in his own life. (The tagline on the movie’s posters is, unsubtly, “One shot for a second chance.”) The movie works quite well on its own, understated and willing to embody genre tropes while quietly subverting them. But Affleck’s history brings the story — of a grieving alcoholic trying to come back from the brink — both emotional heft and a kind of trustworthiness.

The Way Back starts out as a sports movie, but it turns into something more

Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, a former high school basketball star with strong prospects and a full ride to play college hoops. Now he’s a middle-aged construction worker and a raging (but relatively high-functioning) alcoholic. He hides booze on the job, keeps a beer in the shower, pounds can after can when he gets home at night, and has mostly cut himself off from other people — except his buddies down at the bar, who end up having to walk him home more nights than not.

At the start of The Way Back, the reasons for his addiction seem to be somewhat obvious: He and his wife (Janina Gavankar) split a year and a half earlier, and it sent him spiraling. But The Way Back isn’t quite as simple as that, and as the story unspools, so does Jack’s full backstory. It’s rarely just one thing that drives a person to addiction; a lifelong pile-up of pain drives Jack.

But it takes a while for those details to leak out. Jack is closed off and unrevealing, and the movie tracks with his emotional state. Which is why, instead of diving straight into his trauma, The Way Back first sets itself up as a sports movie. Jack gets a call from the priest in charge of his former high school who asks him to step in as basketball coach for the flailing team after the previous coach’s health problems take him out of the job.

Why Jack came to mind isn’t entirely clear, nor is it obvious why anyone thought a former star player would necessarily be a great coach. But the team is desperate. Jack is equally desperate to refuse — for reasons that take a long time to become clear — but eventually he relents and agrees to take the job.

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