It’s no secret that Ben Affleck’s personal life has been a bumpy one as of late. Since his divorce from Jennifer Garner, Affleck went down a dark path that eventually led him to rehab for drinking. This affected him in all areas of his life including on screen.
But Affleck is looking to change that and get back to being the movie-star we know him to be and he’s starting his own way back in the right way. The Way Back features a career-best performance from Affleck in an emotionally stirring film about one man at his absolute lowest.
Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) was a high school basketball phenom who walked away from the game, forfeiting his future. Now, years later, after a failed marriage, Jack is an alcoholic who lives alone and works at a construction site during the day and the bar at night. When he reluctantly accepts a coaching job at his high school alma mater, he may get one last shot at redemption.
With The Way Back, director Gavin O’Connor has cemented himself as the premiere modern sports director. With 2004’s Miracle and 2011’s Warrior, O’Connor has shown he can handle a wide range of sports while also making smart, gripping, emotional movies. The basketball action in The Way Back took me back to when I played in high school. O’Connor portrays the tone and intensity of these games brilliantly. From the crowd to Cunningham yelling at his team to the actual gameplay and terminology, everything feels authentic and real and makes you really feel like you’re watching an actual high school basketball game. My heart was racing during every game and it made me miss the days when I used to play in front of crowds like that and get scolded by coaches like Cunningham scolds his.
The thing with O’Connor’s sports films is that the sports aren’t the priority. In Warrior, the film was built around an MMA tournament, but the film really looked at the father-son relationship and the redemption of a broken family. Miracle, a film about arguably the greatest hockey game in the history of the sport, looked at a bunch of guys coming together to become a family even though they were about to play the biggest game of their lives. The Way Back is no different, as it focuses on a man living with deep sadness, regret, and addiction. But contrary to the title, The Way Back is not a movie about one man’s journey from the bottom back to the top. This is a movie about a man realizing he is at the bottom and figuring out how to start his journey back. Even when he seems to be at his highest and thinks things are going well, he still hasn’t figured out how to get back and stays low. This is what makes O’Connor sports film so great. They are deeply human stories, yet feature thrilling sports action.
But The Way Back is the Ben Affleck show. Affleck has never given a performance like the one he gives here. This is an emotionally raw, stripped down performance by Affleck. He has never looked worse on screen. In most of his movies, Affleck has looked like he’s had himself mostly together. Whether robbing banks in South Boston in The Town or being a romantic lead in He’s Just Not That Into You or being accused of murdering his wife in Gone Girl, Affleck has always looked good and looked cool. That isn’t the case here. Always sweaty and bloated, Affleck is an absolute mess and that only adds to his character and his performance. Cunningham is a hot mess himself. A man who polishes off a 24-pack of beer before dinner and has to get carried home from the bar nightly only to show up to practice the next morning. His personal life is in shambles, isolating himself away from his family and living with serious amounts of guilt and regret. Affleck gives us all of this in subtle ways. He wears it in his eyes and on his shoulders. The weight of sadness just stays with him at all times and he can never let it go, even when things are going well. This is the best performance of Affleck’s career and already a contender for one of the great performances of 2020.
The Way Back worked for me on every level. This is powerful, moving, exciting movie led by an incredible performance by Ben Affleck. It is a movie that will have you standing up and cheering, yet pull at your heartstrings and make you grab a tissue or two.