It is said that the great Michael Jordan would arrive before everybody else for practice, and would stay back longer than them. It was a mark of greatness. This is the anecdote I was immediately reminded of while watching a scene in "The Way Back", in which an upstart high school basketball player arrives five minutes late for a training session, and is promptly dropped from the team by the coach, Jack Cunningham.
Played by Ben Affleck, Jack was a star player in his youth, but allowed alcohol and grief to consume him later in life. When we first meet him, he's working at a construction site. After his old school's basketball coach is forced to quit because of an illness, Jack is summoned to help guide a poorly disciplined team as it struggles to compete with better equipped and more talented players.
Watch the trailer of "The Way Back" here
It would be interesting to observe someone who hasn't seen a Ben Affleck movie since his heyday in the 2000s, watch "The Way Back". The one-time idol is nearly unrecognizable these days, having traded in that cocky smile for a dead-eyed glumness. In "The Way Back", Affleck doesn't walk around with his trademark strut, but with his hands stuffed in his pockets, his body slouched and disproportionately top-heavy.
He instils in Jack a familiarity that could only come from someone who has, partially, lived that sort of life -- it's the kind of instinctive performance that Affleck delivered in David Fincher's "Gone Girl", in which he channelled an altogether different side to his persona. Small details like Jack tapping the top of his beer cans before cracking them open, making sure to replace every can he pulls out of the freezer with a new one, and gravitating towards the fridge in whichever house he finds himself, make Jack's cycle of self-loathing all the more believable.
"The Way Back" feels formulaic, but it really isn't. It's almost as if writer Brad Inglesby constructed a screenplay that hit all the familiar beats, and then director Gavin O'Connor went and systematically altered a few key moments. None is more surprising than the 30-minute postscript that the film ends with. It single-handedly changes its very nature. While the film sticks to the expected path, both as a sports drama and a character study, by switching between the two it saves itself from becoming a cliched example of either.
The film isn't meant to be a soaring underdog story, nor does it pretend that guiding the team to success will save Jack's life. It's simply a portrait of these characters at a very particular time in their lives; they'll have other stories to tell.
As with "Gone Girl", Affleck's character in "The Way Back" feels frighteningly semi-autobiographical at times -- the actor has been vocal about his time in rehab for alcoholism -- but the film lacks the confessional bite of something like Shia LaBeouf's "Honey Boy", or Jonathan Demme's "Rachel Getting Married".
It might have the look and feel of an American independent picture -- the camerawork is wistful and the images painterly -- but it is, after all, a result of Affleck's longstanding relationship with Warner Bros. In happier times, he would have directed "The Way Back" himself, and possibly garnered tremendous acclaim, the comeback story making for a fabulous Oscars narrative. But neither seems likely now.