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Blu-ray Review: The Way Back

May 26, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) is an alcoholic. He works in construction during the day and spends his nights at the local bar, getting drunk to the point of needing to be helped home. In the morning, he sips a beer while in the shower, and starts the whole process all over again.

But Jack has the chance for redemption when he is given the opportunity to start coaching basketball at his old alma matter, Bishop Hayes High School, where he was once a star player on the Catholic school’s team. After some thought, Jack takes over the struggling team, and helps the students unleash their true potential, but his own personal demons continue to haunt him.

Jack is the main character in The Way Back, and throughout the film, we pull back layers from him to understand how he has gotten to this point. The film plays as a mix of inspiring sports movie and gritty addiction drama, charting Jack’s healing process and various relapses as he wrestles with painful events from his past that are only hinted at at the beginning, but come into sharper focus as the film goes on.

Directed by Gavin O’Connor, who previously made the sports drama Warrior and worked with Affleck in the underrated and supremely entertaining thriller The Accountant, The Way Back serves as a gripping showcase for its star. Affleck draws from his own personal experiences as a recovering alcoholic, and it’s the specificity of his performance that is so compelling to watch, as he meticulously portrays the small patterns and daily habits of a seasoned drinker.

The actor is tasked with seeing his character through a wide range of emotions. On the basketball court, Jack is able to become a charismatic, foul-mouthed champion for this group of boys from various ethnic and financial backgrounds, taking on a sort of strict father figure role in their lives. But his own life is filled with grief and despair, only muted by his excessive drinking. Affleck is brilliant at portraying both the inward and outward sides of this character, subtly revealing the emotions that Jack has internalized over the course of the film.

The film also boasts rousing basketball scenes, with the game scores appearing on screen over freeze frames in what is a nice stylistic touch. While the actual story beats of The Way Back are somewhat predictable – the film does try to be a few too many things at once, and can come off as formulaic and clichéd at times – it’s carried by a rock solid performance that keeps it engaging to watch. At its best, The Way Back explores grief, addiction and recovery in an unvarnished way, built around one of the finest performances of Ben Affleck’s career.

The Blu-ray also includes the two featurettes The Way Back: This Sporting Life and Every Loss is Another Fight: The Road to Redemption, which feature Affleck and O’Connor talking about the character of Jack and the story of the film.

The Way Back is a Warner Bros. Home Entertainment release. It’s 108 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: May 19th, 2020

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