In the opening shot of “The Way Back,” Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck), throws a rope down the frame. The camera pans, just slightly—it’s not quite clear toward whom he is tossing it, but the act doesn’t seem all that out of place on a busy construction site. Jack spends his days here, earning a living—more specifically, money he can spend on cases of beer, gin and his nightly trips to the local watering hole.
The tragedy at the heart of “The Way Back” is that everyone knows Jack is suffering. His sister, his ex-wife, his friends who help him stumble home every evening; everyone can see beneath his unconvincing surface and his brisk “I’m fine.” The viewer, too, can see beneath the surface of this somewhat-by-the-numbers premise. Soon, Jack gets a call from his former high school principal, who offers him the chance to coach his alma-mater’s basketball team.
Jack, who hasn’t been on the court in years, is reluctant to take the job, but he eventually accepts. What kind of inspiring sports movie would this be if he didn’t? There is a sincerity baked into every frame of “The Way Back,” particularly present as Jack gets more and more invested in the success of the Bishop Hayes varsity team. But director Gavin O’Connor (“Warrior,” “The Accountant”) knows exactly what kind of movie he’s making, as he seeks to elevate conventional material with graceful staging.
O’Connor knows his star is the key. Affleck has starred in billion dollar movies and directed a Best Picture winner, but his issues off-screen are no secret. He’s been open about his own struggles with addiction and alcoholism, struggles you can feel him working through in “The Way Back.” Affleck turns in a deeply honest performance, bolstered by little details in his inflections. He really sells the idea that this guy has built a routine around numbing himself, and his problem is never played for laughs, nor does the film exaggerate or exploit Jack’s demons.
Still, it’s not all gloom. Former “Daily Show” correspondent Al Madrigal co-stars as Jack’s assistant coach Dan, and together, the pair do their best to get the Hayes team into shape. Instead of leaning too hard into Jack’s relationships with his players for cheap, sentimental lesson-learning, like our protagonist, you just sort-of get tired of seeing this team lose. O’Connor mines a lot of comedy—and even some pathos—out of Jack’s courtside manner, as he screams at referees and desperately tries to push his team to a victory.
That is until Bishop Hayes does get its act together, and its triumphs become a real possibility. In these moments, O’Connor emphasizes Rob Simonsen’s score, not above a slow-motion shot or two to increase the tension around a game-winning basket. No, “The Way Back” doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s not really any single contest or regional championship that’s at stake. It’s about whether or not Jack can catch the rope he’s throwing to himself. To watch Affleck try is stirring stuff.