As I left the theater after viewing Ben Affleck’s new movie “The Way Back,” I felt hollow and wrung out. This is not a feel good film, but it is a film that grabs you emotionally and will make you think deeply about your own life, your own choices, and your own family. There isn’t a clean and tidy ending. In fact, the ending is a bit ambiguous and open ended, leaving it up to the viewer to wonder how things will end up. Likely, that is exactly what Afflect wanted, a story in which life is messy and complicated and burdened by the past. At one point in the film a character states, “You can’t change the past, but you can choose how you move forward.” We all have things that happen to us that are beyond our control, and this film reminds us that it is how we react to them that ultimately defines us.
“The Way Back” is a very personal film for Affleck. He has spoken freely of the legacy of alcoholism and mental illness that has plagued his family, how difficult it has been to shake and how it contributed to his divorce. In fact, the film began shooting shortly after he completed rehab, and you, as the viewer can feel him facing his own demons through the character of Jack Cunningham, a man crushed by the weight of circumstances and bad decisions.
We first meet Jack as a laborer in the bleak and monotonous landscape of a construction yard, where building materials are loaded on and off trucks and naked steel girders slowly morph into sky scrapers. Like the landscape, he is raw, dirty, incomplete, and in transition. Through flashbacks and bits of conversation with family and friends, we learn that he’s lost his son, is estranged from his wife and is spiraling deeper and deeper into alcoholism and self destructive behavior.
I admit this doesn’t make the movie sound very appealing, but somehow Affleck’s portrayal makes us care about Jack, especially after we see him interact with his patient wife, his steadfast sister and his adoring nieces and nephews. He comes across as a good guy and we want him to snap out of it, to get it together and to move on with his life. Right on cue the plot offers an unusual opportunity to do just that. His Catholic alma mater is in desperate need of a varsity basketball coach, and years ago Jack was their greatest player. He is asked personally by a priest to take on a program that is as sad and neglected as his own miserable life. The stage is set for an uplifting story of personal redemption.
This section of the film follows the familiar path of the underdog team and downtrodden coach. The first few games are ugly — players rebel, tempers flare, but little by little team and coach begin to believe in each other. They start to win on the court, and we, in turn, desperately want Jack to score some wins in his life. At this point, most films, safe films, would have Jack pull it together, win the championship and live happily ever after, but this is not that kind of film. Jack is a bundle of contradictions. He teaches his players that doing the little things right adds up, but he can’t do them in his own life. He teaches his team not to let circumstances be an excuse, and yet continually makes excuses for his own behavior. He preaches to never give up, to never lose hope, and yet when challenged in life, he crumbles.
Although gut wrenching, I think that Jack’s downfall as coach was my favorite part of the movie, especially (SPOILER ALERT) when just as his team is poised for the playoff’s he is fired. Throughout his tenure as coach, the priests assisting him continually offer reminders to Jack that his words, behavior, and actions are the most important part of being a coach. They remind him that yes, God does care about him, and not to underestimate the affect his actions will have on others. They are patient and loving, but also acknowledge that some lines can’t be crossed and stick by their code of conduct even when it means losing their coach just before entering the playoff’s for the first time in 20 years. Hallelujah! Doing the right thing in difficult circumstances isn’t something you see depicted very often.
The movie ends on a hopeful note. We hear the first playoff game on the radio in the background and the team is playing competitively without him. Jack seems to have done his job well in that a truly good coach builds players that can think and survive on their own. We see a montage of Jack finally getting treatment, seeing a therapist and tearfully apologizing to his wife. We see Jack, alone, shooting baskets on an isolated beach-side court with the setting sun behind him and we are left wondering if Jack will find his way back, or the team will win the championship. In the end, I guess it doesn’t matter. What matters is that they are ready to move forward no matter what happens. And if they can, maybe so can we.
“The Way Back” is playing now at Atascadero’s Galaxy Theaters, located at 6917 El Camion Real.