Famous celebrity, actor, and Oscar-winning writer/director Ben Affleck has spent the past several years confronting his personal demons both on and off screen.
His work in David Fincher’s 2014 mystery thriller “Gone Girl” was a treatise on the cult of celebrity status – and largely unbeknownst to Affleck during filming – an intentional bit of casting that put audiences at odds with his character in the film because of their personal disdain towards him.
While his recent work as Batman in the DC Comics Extended Universe provided Affleck an opportunity to cash in on his fame, it also has allowed him to pursue more introspective work including a somber turn in last year’s Netflix drama “Triple Frontier” and now with the sports drama “The Way Back.”
Reteaming with his “The Accountant” director Gavin O’Connor, “The Way Back” features perhaps Affleck’s most thoughtful, self-reflective performance to date as Jack Cunningham, a former high school basketball star turned alcoholic washout asked to become the head boys’ hoops coach at his alma mater.
That it comes on the heels of a well-documented personal battle for Affleck with alcoholism that led to multiple stints in rehabilitation, relapsing and a divorce from Jennifer Garner is not by accident either.
Every moment of “The Way Back” is considered and has an air of subtle authenticity speaking to Affleck’s own struggles. A title change from “The Has-Been” to “The Way Back” suggests this to be true; watching Affleck’s innate precision at showing the signs of substance abuse and hiding them from those around him is especially poignant.
The film’s highest points are in the lowest moments of Jack’s personal hell, stumbling out of his second home at the neighborhood dive bar, waking up hungover and drinking a can of light beer while in the shower, avoiding life as a whole.
It’s in these moments where the line between Jack Cunningham the character and Ben Affleck the performer are exceptionally blurred and viewers cannot possibly separate the two, which usually hinders the success of a film. For “The Way Back,” it’s the only way the film works.
O’Connor’s screenplay, written with Brad Ingelsby, never fully commits to Jack’s story of redemption in overcoming his alcoholism, fusing an intimate, personal journey with a rather bland, standard sports drama that believes itself to be “Hoosiers” but never has any element that elevates the story of a rag-tag group of losing basketball players becoming a team to the level of Affleck’s individual performance.
It’s often noticeable in Affleck’s work how uncomfortable he is coaching the players on the team, which feels both a part of the way he built the character of Jack and how much he’d rather be focusing on the half of “The Way Back” that has nothing to do with basketball.
This isn’t to say that the sports drama is entirely uncompelling. A veteran in the genre directing both 2004’s Olympic ice hockey feature “Miracle” and the exceptional 2011 mixed martial arts film “Warrior,” O’Connor does a terrific job of creating montages that engage viewers in the basketball action.
Basketball sections of the film do provide much needed lightness to an otherwise heavy drama and occasionally create opportunities for Affleck to show Jack’s growth as a person.
But “The Way Back” simply shouldn’t have this much PG-13 level sports in an R-rated character drama. A more composed script would have pushed the film – and especially Affleck’s performance – into Oscar-worthy status and could have made it the first truly great film of the new decade.
Affleck’s subdued, introspective turn is worth the price of admission to “The Way Back,” a film that hopefully showcases more great things to come from one of Hollywood’s most dynamic and passionate filmmakers.