Kevin Jones’s review published on Letterboxd:
Gavin O’Connor’s The Way Back is a return to what worked so well for O’Connor before. After a shaky entry with Jane Got a Gun and a crowd-pleasing but critically mixed work in The Accountant, O’Connor goes back to what worked for him with Miracle and Warrior: sports melodrama. Here, the subject is Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck). Once a star basketball player at Bishop Hayes, he has struggled since graduation. He turned down a full-ride scholarship to play basketball at Kansas to stick it to his neglectful father and subsequently turned to drugs. Personal trauma and a broken marriage added rage and alcohol to the picture. None of this is showing signs of stopping as he pours vodka into his morning coffee as he arrives at work at a local construction site. Things are about to change for him, however, as Bishop Hayes needs a new basketball coach and Jack is at the top of the school’s wishlist.
Perhaps the sports side of this film is cookie-cutter, but the drama is anything but. O’Connor knows his way about using sports to power the drama, but never cutting corners with the weight of his character’s personal issues, as he showed in the excellent Warrior. Here, Jack’s life does not turn around because he decides to coach Bishop Hayes. He and the players struggle to take off initially, ultimately turning their season around and making history at this athletically weak Bishop Hayes. But, Jack’s own personal story is not so rousing a success. It is filled with pain, relapses, and refusals to admit things are wrong. Polishing off a full fridge of beers as he contemplates taking the job or not and then starting his day off with his habitual shower beer should indicate that this is not a man completely set on helping himself.
O’Connor and Affleck never shy away from this cold, hard reality. An addict has to want to help themselves. For much of The Way Back, Jack is content to leave his helping to assisting his players with basketball and personal responsibility. Meanwhile, he still heads to the bar every night and has to be carried home, while sneaking drinks in his office at the school. This is a broken man and basketball is hardly enough to put him back together. Whether the loss of his son or the fracturing of his marriage, Jack is forced to confront that pain and reconcile what it means to him. He is not given an escape through basketball, rather it restores some purpose to his life but basketball will not save him. That is crucial to the film, a story aware of the promises sport makes to the historically disenfranchised that rarely pays off. Young men like Bishop Hayes’ star Brandon (Brandon Wilson) may appear to have their life laid out before them thanks to the sport, but his own father is a testament to how short-lived that success can be. Jack himself is as well, living in regret over how his career went and being unable to fight his addiction solely through being around the game. He needs to seek and accept help, leaning on others and trusting in himself as more than a passenger to his own trauma. As he coaches up young players like Brandon into believing in themselves and trusting when others tell them to speak up and to take charge, Jack must do the same.
But, it is a road littered with empty beer cans and fractured relationships. Any step forward is met with a few steps back. Healing comes through hard work and The Way Back shows these painful steps, delivering gut punches after highs. Those successes on the court may trick one into thinking the same is transpiring for Jack in his life, but they often coincide with his lowest moments as life manages to creep up and make him re-live all of his pain. Ben Affleck excels in this role, playing to his strengths and own lived experiences. Jack is hardly without flaws and Affleck’s empathetic performance ensures these are never glossed over either, confessing to his own sins and confronting the self-destructive way in which he approaches his pain. O’Connor never lets Jack off the hook and Affleck’s delivery of Jack’s scenes of confession and honesty hit the hardest. He brings an authenticity to the lines, a genuine pain and understanding that helps them to land full force. As he self-medicates, spirals out of control, and confronts his demons, Affleck’s defeated look and his the pain written all over his face prove absolutely gut-wrenching to watch.
The Way Back is certainly conventional in spots. Its sports section never feels particularly inspired, running through a typical cliches as Bishop Hayes has their backs up against the wall after a tough start and then run off a big winning streak. Compared to the drama portion of the film, it is certainly the weaker part of The Way Back and it does hold the film itself back a bit. Fortunately, O’Connor does well to bring the kids to life even though they are relatively one-dimensional. The actors all have a good rapport with Affleck that lends the scenes credibility, while even the dialogue generally rings true to the nature of young high school boys. This is not their film, so naturally none are given great depth and the one that is, Brandon, is well-developed via Jack exploring Brandon’s home life and encouraging him to take the lead on the team. While straight-forward, it is hard not to get caught up in the emotion of the team’s miraculous turnaround, which is a plus for The Way Back even if every beat is telegraphed.
Perhaps predictable, yet nonetheless affecting, well directed, and impressively acted, The Way Back is an honest and often moving look at alcoholism. It understands the illness and struggle well with Affleck’s terrific performance lending great gravity to his character’s every feeling and move. It is a somewhat uplifting film, but one that does not seek to sugarcoat the serious steps that must be taken to be in recovery. Gavin O’Connor seems to be best at blending sports and melodrama with his strongest films combining the two and, as such, The Way Back is another winner.