Jack Cunningham was a high school basketball superstar who suddenly walked away from the game for unknown reasons. Years later, he’s now stuck in a meaningless job and struggling with alcoholism — the very thing that ruined his marriage and his hope for a better life. But Jack soon gets a shot at redemption when he becomes the basketball coach for his alma mater, a program that has fallen on hard times since his teenage glory days.
Plot: Jack Cunningham was an HS basketball phenom who walked away from the game, forfeiting his future. Years later, when he reluctantly accepts a coaching job at his alma mater, he may get one last shot at redemption.
Director: Gavin O’Connor
Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1
Runtime: 108 min
Rotten Tomatoes Consensus: The Way Back‘s occasionally frustrating treatment of a formulaic story is often outweighed by Ben Affleck’s outstanding work in the central role.
“Ben Affleck gives one of his best performances to date.”
Jack Cunningham is a construction worker who is not only struggling alone being separated from his wife, but also a dangerous alcoholic. While at Thanksgiving dinner with his mother, his sister Beth expresses concern about his drinking and isolation from friends and family. Jack pushes all thoughts away and tells everyone he’s fine — though he’s far from it.
The next day, Jack receives a call from Father Devine at his Catholic high school Bishop Hayes, a school where he was a star basketball player that led the team to multiple championships. Father Devine asks him to step in as the school’s basketball coach due to the fact that the current coach suffered a heart attack. At first Jack tries to talk himself out of it, but ultimately, he accepts the job. From here Jack is introduced to assistant coach and algebra teacher Dan, as well as all members of the team.
Up until this moment in the season Bishop Hayes has only won one game… even worse? They haven’t been to the playoffs since Jack was a student some twenty years prior. Since the team is horrible, student and local interest in basketball has dropped off completely. Officially, the team only had six varsity players so they had to fill up the rest of the team from JV.
In Jack’s first game as head coach the team faces Memorial, the best team in the league and one of the best in the state. As the team begins to get blown out, Jack benches one of the starters and demands the team play with more toughness. How does he do this? By throwing insults and demanding his team to man-up. He lets them know that they need to do whatever’s necessary to achieve this, even if that means hurting players on the other team. (You can’t tell if this is a tactic to help pump up the team, or permission to do so.) Regardless of the input Bishop Hayes loses badly and the team is drained mentally and physically. As the season carries on Dan (the assistant coach) begins to notice signs of Jack’s alcoholism, not only did Memorial’s coach lead him to it, he also finds beer cans in Jack’s office on campus.
What happens next? Will he pull the team and himself together? You’ll have to check out the film to find out.
In conclusion —
I have to start off by saying that this is one of Ben Affleck’s best performances to date. He carries this film with darkness in his eyes and with heavy shoulders — he really makes you feel the pain that he’s trying to work through. The movie isn’t perfect as the plot and narrative takes us off the beaten path a few times, but this is why I come back to praising Affleck’s performance. Any of the moments that could be seen as an unnecessary detour are made up with his emotional response to the moment — the hope-filling and addicting basketball sequences were a huge positive as well.
When I went into this film, the trailer sold me on a redemption story through sports. While you could say that this was true on a basic level, I was pleasantly surprised in the way becoming a coach aided in his recovery process. It helped him immensely, but it wasn’t the only driving factor, it was more of the cherry on top. Even though a lot of what I’m explaining can sound simple, there is a depth to everything Affleck sells on screen.
Ultimately, (before I ramble on) the story unfolds in a showcase on how redemption and recovery from loss can be slow, but in the end with family, friends and sports, you can come through the other side in a positive light with hope. What could be wrong with that?
Lastly, this movie has two special features included on the Blu-ray disc. The first is Every Loss Is Another Fight: The Road to Redemption and the second, The Way Back: This Sporting Life. In total you’re looking at about 10 minutes of extra footage. This isn’t the kind of movie that needs a lot of extras because the movie said it all, but if you are looking for a little deeper of a dive behind the scenes, you’re in luck.
Taking everything I’ve said into account, The Way Back gets my recommendation for a purchase. If you like some good heavy acting, Ben Affleck or a good redemption story with a sports formula, you’ll be sure to enjoy this one. Do yourself a favor, grab a copy at your local retailer on Blu-ray today.
Are you a fan of The Way Back? Will you be picking it up to own? Let me know what you think in the comments below.
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