Ben Affleck has gone through a fascinating evolution over the past twenty-five years. He came from humble beginnings with indie films like Mallrats, Chasing Amy, and Good Will Hunting, the latter of which made him the youngest screenwriter ever to win an Oscar. As Affleck went Hollywood with films like Armageddon and Pearl Harbor, though, he became blinded by the limelight. By the time he starred in Daredevil, Gigli, and Surviving Christmas, it seemed like Affleck was destined to live out the rest of his career as a punchline. Once Affleck got behind the camera, however, he pulled off one of the industry’s most impressive comebacks with Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and Argo. Affleck’s acceptance speech when Argo won Best Picture remains one of the most uplifting moments in Academy Awards history, reminding us that anyone can find their way back.
Whether it was intentional or not, The Way Back is an eerie reflection of Affleck’s highs and lows, both as an entertainer and as a person. Affleck plays Jack, a former basketball player who everyone thought would go the distance. Somewhere down the line, however, Jack lost himself to the bottle. When he isn’t at the bar, Jack is emptying a fridge full of beer at home. He’s grown distant from his family and has been separated from his wife (Janina Gavankar) for over a year. Jack’s life is given purpose again when he’s asked to coach his old high school team, which hasn’t made it to the playoffs since he was a student in the 90s. While the team doesn’t look like much, some tough love from their new coach just might take them to the big leagues while giving Jack a shot at redemption.
The Way Back does admittedly sound familiar on paper. The setup is not only reminiscent of other sports dramas, but another movie starring another Affleck: Manchester by the Sea. In that film, Casey Affleck also played a depressed loner who’s driven away from his wife and finds new meaning when he’s asked to care for a teenage boy. There’s even a revelation in the second act of The Way Back that ties into the central theme of Manchester. For all the familiarity, though, there is a fair deal that sets The Way Back apart from the rest.
It’s refreshing to see a sports drama that was made for adults. Jack’s players don’t talk like the sanitized teenagers you’d see in a Disney sports movie. They talk like the foul-mouthed, politically incorrect teenage boys you’d find in any real high school. Jack isn’t afraid to speak their language either, demonstrating that he can trash talk as well. It’s not the excessive swearing that makes The Way Back an adult sports movie, though. The screenplay tackles serious issues, from alcoholism to loss, and much of it rings true. Every time it seems like the film may cop out with an inspirational sports cliché, it rebounds with a brutal dosage of reality.
Although Jack’s life improves through his coaching duties, winning a few games can’t erase the sins of the past or the demons within. The ending in particular is far more bittersweet than triumphant. That may be the best way to describe Affleck right now. While Affleck has come a long way as of late, he’s still had the occasional professional setback like Live by Night and Batman v Superman. He’s also endured his fair share of personal struggles, finalizing a highly publicized divorce in 2018 and opening up about his history of alcoholism earlier this year. Affleck draws on much of his own experiences here, but not to the point that it becomes self-indulgent. This is an emotionally raw, deeply personal performance from Affleck that ranks among his absolute best. Whatever lies on the horizon for Affleck, The Way Back is a testament to how far he’s come as an actor and leaves us all feeling more optimistic.