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‘The Way Back’ Review: Ben Affleck Is at His Best in Sad and Sobering Basketball Drama

Affleck's underplayed performance as an alcoholic basketball coach might be the most personal work he’s ever done on screen.

The Way Back Ben Affleck

“The Way Back”

Warner Bros.

Editor’s note: This review was originally published for the theatrical release of “The Way Back.” The film comes to VOD on Tuesday, March 24.

Modern Hollywood’s messiest comeback artist is finally ready to show his work on screen, and there isn’t a moment to waste. You can tell from the first minutes of “The Way Back” that construction worker Jack Cunningham is unlike any character Ben Affleck has ever played before — he’s not trying to impress anyone. There’s no twinkle in his eye, no swagger in his step, no “smartest guy in the room” energy to the way he carries himself. He murmurs when he talks, drinks a beer in the shower every morning, and sparks to the salesman at his neighborhood liquor store as if that’s the only stable relationship he still has left in his life.

Swollen and greasy (Affleck has never looked bigger, or seemed quite as small), Jack is a far cry from the chiseled Bruce Wayne, the brave Tony Mendez, or even the self-parodic cheater Affleck embodied in “Gone Girl.” Wasn’t this guy supposed to be Boston’s George Clooney, or at least its apology for Mark Wahlberg? What about the next Clint Eastwood? Cursed to be a movie star in an age that doesn’t need them, Affleck has grown almost unrecognizable from the middle-class matinee idol that Hollywood first swooned over in the late ’90s.

And yet, his compellingly underplayed performance in “The Way Back” feels like it might be the most personal thing he’s ever done. That’s not just because the meta-text of it all is so hard to ignore, and that Affleck shot this movie shortly after finishing a stint in rehab (the actor’s own misadventures with alcohol are chronicled by the tabloids, and his mea culpas by the Times). In fact, it has more to do with how Gavin O’Connor’s modest and moving sports drama refuses to let its leading man reclaim something of his old screen persona. It denies Affleck the crutch of his natural charisma, or the chance to hide behind a story that’s bigger than himself. In fact, this sober little studio movie is so uncommonly effective because of its steady insistence that life can’t be lived in reverse; that, contrary to its title, there’s no going back.

The raw and redemptive tale of a broken soul who starts piecing himself back together when he’s hired to coach his old high school basketball team, “The Way Back” only sounds like a movie that you’ve already seen 100 times because — in broad strokes — it is. But “Miracle” director O’Connor (who could make this kind of thing in his sleep) and screenwriter Brad Ingelsby head-fake expectations in a number of significant ways, avoiding the easy layups endemic to the sports genre in favor of a story that finds more drama in running drills than it does in playing the big game.

We meet Jack when he’s circling the drain — every night is spent bungee-jumping a few inches closer to rock bottom, and they all end with him being carried home from the local watering hole by the same old man who used to do the honors for his dad. There’s a sharp darkness underlying Jack’s addiction (the details of which are revealed with a shiv of exposition in the second act), but understanding the reasons for one’s self-destructive behavior can fool people into thinking they have it under control. A defensive early scene between Jack and his sister (Michaela Watkins) makes it all too clear that he’s hurting too much to let anyone even acknowledge his pain. Affleck isn’t suave here; whatever charm Jack has is suffocated under layers of scar tissue. He’s being driven by his damage, and ready to snap at anyone who forces him to look in the rear-view mirror.

“The Way Back”

Warner Bros.

Jack needs the kind of help he doesn’t know how to ask for, and that’s when someone unexpectedly puts their faith in him. You get the sense that Father Edward Devine (“E.R.” chief John Aylward) — the long-time principal of Bishop Hayes High School — has been informed that his school’s greatest former basketball star has fallen on hard times, but it could also just be an act of Devine providence. The team’s previous coach is out for the season with a heart attack (a possible side effect of losing every game of the season), and they need someone to sub in right away. Twenty-four beers and a dark night of the soul later, Jack acquiesces.

Imagine if the Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper roles from “Hoosiers” were compressed into the same character, and you can basically predict where “The Way Back” goes from there. One slam-dunk story beat follows another: The kids on the team are a bunch of slackers and showoffs who don’t know how to work together, and each player is distinguished by his own defining trait (one’s horny, one’s fat, one’s selfish, and so on). Jack is saddled with the school’s straitlaced algebra teacher as his assistant (a warm and grounded Al Madrigal), and the friction between their respective styles of coaching is low-key funny throughout. The team sucks, but Jack swears at them about toughness until they suddenly get a lot better. There’s even a rivalry with the menacing rich kids from the other side of the track, whose asshole coach learned everything he knows from watching Lane Smith in “The Mighty Ducks.”

A pot-bellied Ben Affleck yelling at teenagers while swigging hard liquor out of a water bottle would probably be reason enough to recommend this movie, but “The Way Back” doesn’t gets too caught up in the highs and lows of a miracle season. There’s never a sense that Jack is just a few wins away from getting back on his feet. This is the rare sports drama that respects the gravity of what people are playing for, and the limits of how far a game can take them. In other words, it’s sad as hell, and leaves you clinging for whatever motes of light you can find along the way.

O’Connor’s solemn direction mutes even the most exciting basketball plays until you recognize how nothing these kids do on the court is going to single-handedly fix what haunts their coach away from it. There isn’t a three-pointer that can repair Jack’s relationship with his estranged wife (Janina Gavankar, acing a difficult role), or a defensive rebound that can heal the hole in his heart. These kids are super likeable and easy to root for — even if their individual stories don’t resonate with Jack’s as strongly as they should — but Ingelsby’s script never forgets that their coach has more at stake. Losing a game might cost these players a scholarship, but losing this job might cost Jack his life.

All the same, “The Way Back” is frustratingly evasive when it comes to the literal cost of Jack’s addiction; it’s unclear if he’s getting paid for the coaching gig, and the movie goes out of its way to minimize the many class tensions that cleave up around its margins. That might sound like a minor quibble, but such details are harder to forgive in a film about getting the little things right — about the arduous task of putting one foot in front of the other when the whole world feels as if it’s sinking out from under you. This is a movie that eschews the expected melodrama in favor of more everyday triumphs and setbacks (it takes a man-on-man approach to a zone-oriented genre, often cutting the basketball games short in order to get back to a bar), and that only feels like a raw deal whenever it gets squidgy about the specifics.

But “The Way Back” course corrects in a big way towards the end, as the movie careens past its expected destination and into a gracefully subdued fourth act that reaffirms the underlying truthfulness of this story. So little of what matters in a life happens between the buzzers. People are always in progress — straining for what they’ve left behind while pushing towards some imagined future — but time only moves in one direction, and the road to recovery has to point forward if it leads anywhere at all. Whatever strides Jack makes can only be measured in millimeters, but Affleck ensures that he earns every step. Winning and losing are relative terms, but this is the first time in forever that Affleck feels like he’s got skin in the game.

Grade: B

Warner Bros. will release “The Way Back” in theaters on Friday, March 6.

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