Ben Affleck The Way Back

Director: Gavin O’Connor
Writer: Brad Ingelsby
Cinematographer: Eduard Grau
Editor: David Rosenbloom
Cast: Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Michaela Watkins, Janina Gavankar, Glynn Turman, Jack Aylward
Producer: Gordon Gray, Jennifer Todd, Gavin O’Connor, Ravi Mehta
Streaming Platform: Amazon Prime

All of life is an act of falling short of expectations. This drives Jack (Ben Affleck) into the arms of alcohol. In high school, he was a basketball player with promise, but he shed that, and descended into darkness. The reason, when articulated, is unbelievably simple. (There is something unconvincing about being able to articulate the reason for major life decisions in a few sentences.) He then met his wife, and for a moment there was hope. But when we first see him he is separated- a construction worker furtively downing beer cans with a conviction of a broken heart. He spends every dusk in the neon lit charms of Harrold’s Bar, till he’s unsteady, and then taken home by an old black patron. 

He is un-bothered with shampoo. (He uses soap for his hair, and in a later scene he tells the son of his sister how as a child she had poisoned the fish in the tank because she put shampoo in the water hoping for the fish to lather in bubbles. So not shampooing was a choice, not a condition.) The reason for his separation and subsequent spiral will be known, and they too have this unconvincing veneer of simplicity- cause and effect clearly outlined. 

Father Devine (Jack Aylward) calls him to the rectory, asking if he will coach the Basketball team of Bishop Hayes for the Catholic League. Since Jack’s laurels, they haven’t had much luck. Once a feted, aspirational team, the selection lines for it have all but dried up. So there is a sports-genre redemption angle that is layered with Jack’s redemption. (The show notes trivia on Amazon Prime mention that the redemptive arc of Jack is said to mirror that of Affleck, himself afflicted with alcoholism.) The team he coaches is predominantly black, so there is also a white-saviour complex, one that becomes quite stark when Jack tries to move the father of one of the black kids, Brandon, into supporting his basketball aspirations. He quite literally gives Brandon a voice, with his arc being charted from a reticent player to an articulate, loud, team captain. 

Los Angeles  structurally undulates and so at many points you are looking over the city, or looking up to the city. At night, when Jack is foregrounded against the bokeh blurs of city-lights, he feels small, and his small-ness is palpable.

But where the film slips up is in building a universe of believable characters. Jack continues to work at the construction site after accepting the position of coach. How does he spend his days, and what is the division of his labour between these two? The kids too feel designed to redeem him, their own personal triumphs subsumed if not entirely undiscussed. 

The city of Los Angeles where the film is set is a perfect landscape of melancholy. The city structurally undulates and so at many points you are looking over the city, or looking up to the city. At night, when Jack is foregrounded against the bokeh blurs of city-lights, he feels small, and his small-ness is palpable. The cinematographer Eduard Grau uses flares to accentuate this feeling of empty warmth, and yearning. Grau’s long shots are clean, and his close-ups are gritty and shaky. Together, they create a masterful portrait of being stuck in languor. 

But that is not to say that the setting is the only redeeming quality. The intimacies of Jack, with his kind sister Beth (Michaela Watkins) and his separated wife Angela (Janina Gavankar) are beautiful moments only because they are crafted without closure. Their conversations don’t feel final, or simplistic, like Jack’s self-diagnosis. There is a perhap-ness, and incomplete, unsaid affection that propels these nodes. Ditto for the film, which at its strongest, pushes back against the sports-genre template. It doesn’t end with closure, and a final sense of victory. Because while that is how stories are told, it is rarely how they are lived. 

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