ST. LOUIS — Certain actors have a way of breaking down your preconceived notions by taking on a role that isn't just different yet highly personal.
That's what Ben Affleck did with "The Way Back," a movie chronicling the alcoholic nosedive of a former high school basketball prodigy, from a brief look at his past to his possible redemption. Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, who took the scenic route after high school, one that didn't include a scholarship to play basketball for Kansas. He works a construction job only to pay for the 24 packs of beer and bottles of vodka, which numb his soul from the pain and trauma that have come before it.
Gavin O'Connor's film didn't really get into the details too much initially, but sunk the hook deep enough for you to feel something for Jack and want to see him recover his future. The writing and directing of this film could have been pulled from any era of filmmaking. You could have cloaked this flick in black and white, and sent it back to the 1970's. It was diabolical instead of manipulative, somber and thoughtful instead of cheesy, and an all-around methodical glimpse of a guy in transition.
But it was Affleck that did the heavy lifting, first learning how to play basketball so he could effortlessly coach it in a film, and then by revealing to the world the messy details of his spiraling out of control due to addiction. It was a brave performance more than anything, but it also unlocked something people knew Affleck had yet hadn't really tapped into it just yet. He allowed himself to play a wounded bird instead of a high-flying eagle. Basically, the fast-talking quick-thinking everyman was gone. Jack was a slow-moving, at times mumbling misguided soul who didn't know how to live properly due to the shadow cast over him by a game and a demeaning father.
Affleck peeled back the layers and let us in to see his backstory-which involved an alcoholic father and family tragedy-and mixed it with Cunningham's troubles to produce his career-best work. It's not different like his work in O'Connor's previous film, "The Accountant." In that film, he played an autistic hitman who only goes after the bad men with his mind and scope. It was more of a muted, yet still action-packed, performance. You'd see parts of it before, but still left impressed.
"The Way Back" was different. It was the truth. There's a few scenes in this film that have nothing to do with basketball that just wowed me. The best sports films can be the ones that stray from the court/ice/field and just tell a humanistic story while integrating the key attributes of sports into the plot like a cook seasoning a piece of meat with the right spices and herbs.
One scene early on in the film is painful yet brilliantly played, encapsulating Affleck's entire career. Cunningham is rehearsing a call to the priest who offered him the coaching job, drafting up the number of ways he can simply say no and go back to his construction job and drinking. Near the beginning of the scene, we see Affleck in all his brazen, wise-cracking glory, as he breaks down all the reasons he's not fit for the job. At the same time, the viewer redirects those reasons back at him for the exact ways why he needs the job.
While Jack is doing this, he's grabbing a can of beer from the fridge and placing it in the freezer, where he grabs a beer that has probably been in there for 10-15 minutes. As he goes over the drafted phone call to the priest, this process continues until an entire kitchen center rack is empty. By this time, Affleck's wounded soul is muttering, fighting a stammer that won't quit. He's stumbling around the living room, the mind heavy due to the booze breaking down the door that hides all the pain from his past. The eyes drift back and forth, up and down, like large waves crashing into the ocean front. He's barely putting words together when he passes out.
We may have started with Affleck, but we end up with Cunningham in this scene. By the end, you see a character and not Affleck, while the idea of the actor really doing this in his life occurs to you more than once. It must have been a sadistic training method for a guy still in rehab while production was going. Affleck fell off the wagon before the cameras rolled but thanks to his ex-wife, Jennifer Garner, and some faith from O'Connor, the lights on the film stayed on. But imagine him doing this scene while he was in rehab. Talk about facing your demons with both eyes.
Here's what I think about that scene. I really do think Affleck pulled from his own life, like a certain moment in particular. I don't think he ever wanted to play Batman/Bruce Wayne. That was more than likely something put together by his agent and publicist, along with a good faith asking from Warner Brothers. From the minute the film was made and the promotional tour began, Affleck looked like a musician talking about an album that the record label made him create that he doesn't actually believe in.
It was the same reason he stopped trying to make a solo "Batman" movie. He ran into a wall and it was due to a lack of passion for the project. He probably sat at a chair trying to get stoked and enlivened with the script, trying to avoid what other filmmakers did with the material. In the end, he gave up and let someone else get their hands on the material.
There are several other non-basketball scenes that hit hard during this film. Affleck reacting with a violent temper about his life and drinking with his sister. There's an uncomfortable scene where Jack stumbles into the wrong house and is beaten up and tossed onto the street. Another where he crashes a truck into a boat parked on a street. There's a scene between Affleck and his assistant coach (played by Al Madrigal) that doesn't shy away from intensity and discomfort.
"The Way Back" thrives on interactions, moments, and true displays of pain and struggle that most films shy away from or gloss over in a montage. It hit the pause button, reveled in the pain, and stayed there for a couple scenes.
Through the veneer of basketball and addiction, "The Way Back" told a humanistic tale of forgiveness, regret, and hope.
It also showed people what Ben Affleck can really do.
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