I was hesitating about seeing this movie for a few reasons. First of all, I don't particularly like Ben Affleck. Secondly, I read a lot of bad reviews of the movie. Thirdly, everybody else, since I'm 67 years old, said I need to stay away from places where other people are.
I took a chance that the theater would be virtually empty at 4:00 when I went. It was. There were only two other people in the theater, and they came in late and sat on the opposite side of the room.
On the other side of things, I did feel compelled to see this movie because I am a basketball coach who has battled with depression. I felt that I owed it to myself to see what the movie had to say on that subject.
I was pleasantly surprised. It is more than just a sports movie. It is also a strong message about redemption, and the ability to survive great loss and to find reason to keep on trying. I loved the ending of the movie as I felt that one scene at the end elevated the movie to a different level and made it all about the human struggle our need to find reasons to deal with the pain and suffering that life hands us in spades.
There are several parts of this movie that I identified with wholeheartedly. For example, there's a scene where the coach tells one of his players that his wife saved him from his wasted youth. I give my ex-wife full credit for preventing my own downward spiral at that age.
In another powerful scene, he meets his wife for lunch where she tells him that she is seeing another man. My wife told me she was leaving me in the darkness of our own backyard on a wide slab of cement next to the pool. I can recite the dialogue from that night by heart with every intonation and inflection, and I will be able to do so till the day I die.
There was also a lot of buzz about this being Affleck's greatest performance, and I would have to disagree on that point. It is a good performance, but nothing that comes even close to the job that Joaquin Phoenix did in The Joker, I hate that freaking movie, but have to admit that it was a total star turn on Phoenix's part, and it set the bar very high for actors in the future. So much of this movie involved frozen stares, pained looks, drinking to excess, and swearing that it didn't really give Affleck much to work with.
The best thing about the movie is the writing. There were so many times the movie that could have went the way of cliche. It never did. I was wary that for every moment of discovery that we in the audience would be subjected to a long, boring explanation. The writers studiously avoided such explanation, and instead did something extremely rare in a Hollywood films, they allowed the audience to draw their own conclusion and trusted in our judgement to reach the right ones, and, as a result, the movie never stalled for a moment. Instead, it hummed along at a steady pace that helped support the rising tension.
The film also worked backwards, peeling back layer after layer to reveal the source of the hero's suffering. It was a very effective technique and also helped to create the tension needed to keep the audience in their seats.
Ultimately, the film was a typical sports movie only in regards to the fact that it was about grief, failure, and redemption. That just happens to also make it about things that pretty much everyone experiences at some point in their life. People want to identify with the stories they hear. Those stories make us feel less alone, and makes it seem like we are all sharing the heavy load. It was the reason why I was there.
My wife left me a good while ago. She has since passed away from cancer. I've always blamed myself for the failure of my marriage, but I was way past my substance abuse stage when it happened. That only means that I had to face down the man in the mirror with my flesh peeled back and my nerves fully exposed.
I fell down hard back then, and I have yet, to my own satisfaction, fully regained my equilibrium. I've suffered greatly for that failure, and I have since learned to use words in order to deal with the pain I feel inside. I often stay up at night and write down words at the same pace that Affleck's character downed cold beer.
I've gotten better over time, and just knowing how deeply that others suffer too, helps me keep things in a proper perspective. I like movies and all things that offer up hope. There's more than enough depressing things in this world without Hollywood having to constantly rub our faces in the essence of tragedy.
The theme of The Way Back is about hope, and it pushes that message with a great deal of authority, and it's the kind of hope one gets when the basketball goes up right before the buzzer sounds, and we wait to see if the ball rattles in.