In “The Way Back,” several prisoners escape from a Siberian prison in 1940 and wander aimlessly through the wilderness until they reach India. This improbable feat, loosely based on real experiences, provides director Peter Weir with a way to start and end his story while dwelling in the murky space in between those two points. Incorporating details from Slavomir Rawicz’s novel “The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom” and interviews with survivors who escaped the real Siberian gulags, Weir (also co-screenwriter) uses the historical backdrop as a starting point. History takes a backseat to the larger themes at work. Since the journey is the destination, “The Way Back” takes on universal connotations.
After the vast production scale of his last outing, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” Weir has returned to the spare, observational turf of his 1975 Australian classic “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” in which three characters venture into the wilderness and promptly disappear. In “The Way Back,” roughly the same number of characters — this time, several men and one woman (Saoirse Ronan) who joins them along the way — vanish into an empty landscape and struggle to maintain their collective sanity under increasingly stressful conditions. They never contend with Soviet soldiers in hot pursuit, and the prison escape itself lacks any true suspense. Divorcing their psychological entrapment from the specifics of the era, Weir gives the story a philosophical, ruminative quality, resulting in frequent redundancies over the course of its 133 minutes. Before growing repetitive, however, “The Way Back” masterfully conveys his characters’ sense of isolation.
The fact that none of them are driven by ideological motives helps avoid the need to politicize their plight. Although the young Polish protagonist Janusz (Jim Strugess) has been accused of spying on the Russians, he barely elaborates on his allegiances. American engineer Mr. Smith (Ed Harris) came to Russia for work, and street thug Valka (Colin Farrell) demonstrates his ferocious managerial style at the top of the prison totem poll simply because he learned to survive at the bottom of it on the outside. Their backgrounds feed the dynamic, rather than informing on some greater thesis about the temperament of the time, so “The Way Back” gets inside their heads without inhabiting their ideas.
Weir’s screenplay finds the group wandering through five countries and a variety of empty scenery, from an icy forest to the barren desert. They speak in whispery tones about the abstract quality of their conundrum (Smith considers Janusz’s kindness to be his greatest asset against the chaos of survival). The chemistry shared among them sustains this distended approach, which relies on conventions but treats them as high art instead of “Castaway”-like entertainment: With talk of cannibalism and a fierce showdown that pits the men against wolves, primal human behavior threatens to destroy their chances of staying alive. While death inevitably causes the size of the group to dwindle, it happens arbitrarily, almost peacefully, at the mercy of nature rather than violence. In this sense, “The Way Back” succeeds more as a poetic succession of encounters than any kind of cohesive narrative.
Weir approaches flat-out brilliance with an extended sequence that finds the remaining escapees wandering through the desert in a dreamlike haze. But then he backs down and ends with a pointlessly didactic afterthought. As the music swells, the final shots of feet continually walking are superimposed over archival footage tracing the end of World War II. Beyond its on-the-nose rhetorical definition, this stroll through history works against the movie’s primary strengths, which boldly defy time: Since the characters spend most of the time on the move, the biggest asset to “The Way Back” comes from the implication that there is none.
criticWIRE grade: B