the way back
Warner Bros.

Ben Affleck's 'The Way Back' Is Already the Dad Movie of the Year

One of the very first shots of Ben Affleck in his new sports drama The Way Back is familiar. Affleck, in character as former high school basketball star Jack Cunningham, smokes a cigarette outside a construction site. He looks weary, as if the cigarette is the only thing keeping him from complete, abject misery. The image has a meta quality to it: Paparazzi photos of Affleck, the human man, smoking have been central to the star's troubled public persona. In 2016, The Cut published a gallery of Affleck with cigarettes titled, "A Miserable Gallery of Ben Affleck Smoking Through the Pain of Existence." 

When an actor is as big a star as Ben Affleck, it's nearly impossible to ignore the off-screen narrative of his career. The Way Back, however, almost actively engages with the idea of Sadfleck, the portmanteau he earned after one during the promotion for Batman v Superman that hung over him beyond the memes. Beyond just being a fascinating part of the Affleck saga, The Way Back, directed by Gavin O'Connor, is an understated portrait of a man battling his demons and trauma that never succumbs to maudlin emotion. It's also a satisfying sports movie offering all the requisite triumphs without overshadowing the more upsetting tale it's telling. It's already the dad movie of the year.

When the audience is introduced to Affleck's Jack, he's a solitary figure who pours beers into a soda cup after his manual labor job. He sips that on the way to the bar. He has another beer in the shower. Drinking is part of the fabric of his life. It's not debilitating enough at this point that his caring family members, like his sister (Michaela Watkins), feel they need to mount a campaign to stop his consumption, but it's ever present.

A call from the priest at his old Catholic high school is the catalyst that disrupts the monotony of his days. The basketball team's coach has been forced to retire, and the school wants Jack to step in. That night, we watch as Jack goes through a case of beer in a single night, deliberating over to how to turn the offer down. Every time he grabs a beer from the freezer, he methodically replaces it with a new one from the fridge until they are all gone. That sequence is a subtly brutal depiction of the rituals of alcoholism, evident of the nuanced way Affleck and O'Connor have chosen to handle the subject matter. The next day, Jack shows up for practice.
He finds a team in shambles. Still, his lackluster commitment to the job starts to shift as he identifies talent in the players and his own competitive drive kicks in. The scrappy-team-makes-good trope is a well-worn one, and The Way Back hits recognizable, satisfying beats as it charts Bishop Hayes' run to the playoffs. But every victory is seen through the prism of Jack's uneasy recovery. The team does not solve his problems, even though it gives him something to wake up for in the morning. When old pain reemerges, Jack is powerless to beat it back. 

the way back
Warner Bros.

Affleck gives one of his best performances as Jack, who is naturally charismatic, but fundamentally broken. It's a role he admits cuts close to home. On the promotional tour for the film, Affleck has been open about his own battle with substance abuse, and it's hard not to see the film as a form of therapy for him. Perhaps that's why it so deftly avoids spectacle in favor of something quieter. Cinematographer Eduard Grau forgoes crisp footage for a grainier style, punctuated with lens flare. Even though this is a Warner Bros. release, it has the energy of an indie film. 

Affleck invites the audience to read The Way Back as a referendum on his own struggles, but the movie itself transcends that the same way it transcends the "feel-good" label that gets affixed to so many sports dramas. Your father, I guarantee you, will cry. You probably will, too.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.