‘The Way Back,’ out today in theaters, offers a truly remarkable performance from Ben Affleck. He is an actor known for the intensity of his performances, but in the role of Jack Cunningham, it goes beyond that. Cunningham is a former high school basketball star asked to come back and coach his old team. The only problem is that he is a barely functioning alcoholic.
This is really two movies in one, a sports story, yes, but mostly a take of the ravages of alcoholism and the lengths to which the addicted will go to maintain their fix. The former feels a little flat and pat, the latter is powerful and disturbing, often hard to watch, but too urgent to turn away from.
In an interview with the Associated Press, director Gavin O’Conner said Affleck had a breakdown while filming a scene in which Cunningham is apologizing to his ex-wife, with whom he had experienced a great tragedy.
“It was probably the second take, Ben just had a breakdown. I’m getting chills thinking about it. It was like the dam broke and everything came out,” O’Conner said. Watching this scene is absolutely brutal, and anyone who has ever struggled with alcohol will know immediately how real it is.
As far as the sports story goes, it’s a bit predictable. There is the kid who doesn’t know his potential, well played by rap artist Da’Vinchi, the kid who has to be redeemed, and a whole bunch of bad news bears who can’t win. There is also a father-son story, basically all the things a high school sports movie requires. But even though we know what will happen, the basketball plot works.
In large part, this is true because of the nature of the coaching Affleck’s character brings to the kids. It is flat out toxic masculinity: he insults them, he knocks them down, and slowly gets them to fight, sometimes a little dirty. Any Gen Xer who played sports will appreciate and remember this attitude. It’s a highlight.
There is nothing particularly astonishing about O’Connor’s directorial style in this picture, but it works. It’s like he knows in some sense we are watching a movie we saw before, except for the electric way Affleck captures the horrible trials of alcoholism. How he makes this look like any other movie as we cringe, watching Cunningham’s decline and failed attempts to keep up with life while being carried home from the bar is a telling parallax.
If you want simply a feel good sports movie, this isn’t it. But if you want to watch a leading man in his prime give a career performance, boy howdy. The thing about leading men, and women for that matter, is that they never really play characters, their job is to be some aspect of themselves; something the audience knows. And the challenge is to truly bear your soul. Affleck bears his soul with acting aplomb.
“The Way Back” may or may not make you feel good. It will probably make you feel uneasy. But if you want to watch one of the best recent performances by an actor, if that your kind of thing, this is for you. It was for me. I loved it.