In Good Will Hunting, Ben Affleck’s Chuckie delivers a speech about his future busting his hump every day on a construction site and his being resigned to it: “Tomorrow, I’m going to wake up and be 50, and I’ll still be doing this shit.” The first time we see Affleck’s Jack Cunningham in The Way Back, he’s clad in a hard hat and safety vest, bleary last-call eyes hidden behind sunglasses, at a distance pushing 50 but up close looking even older and more beaten than that. Gavin O’Connor’s drama gives us plenty of reasons to pity Jack, and to get wrapped up in a personal redemption narrative that ticks every inspirational character-study box in the book. But it’s the relationship between what we’re seeing onscreen and what we know about Affleck’s struggles off of it that generates such an empathetic-slash-uncomfortable spectacle. “There are a quite a few parallels between the star and his character,” wrote The Ringer’s Rob Harvilla, describing the pure pain of the actor’s self-abasing press tour; if the self-loathing and doubt Affleck acted so memorably in Good Will Hunting was a youthful affectation, it’s metastasized two-plus decades later into something like authenticity.
Whether or not Affleck’s performance in The Way Back is a calculated matter of art imitating life or one of those ingenious casting strokes that ends up seeming retrospectively predetermined—like Robert Downey Jr. in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang or Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler—there’s no denying that he’s very, very good. Never an actor of great range—which is why his post–Good Will Hunting cameo in Shakespeare in Love as a respected thespian was so on-point—he’s cozied into the narrow crevasse between frat-boy charm (his early collaborations with Kevin Smith) and the weathered-but-still-potent machismo of guys on the downward slope of dubious careers (The Town, Argo, and Triple Frontier, to name a few). The solid, assembly-line handsomeness that saw him packaged as a bland leading man early in his career has sometimes been a liability; where his old pal and cowriter Matt Damon can occasionally disappear into roles, Affleck—partly by virtue of his professional choices, partly because of the tabloid-friendly details of his personal life, and wholly in line with a 21st-century social culture obsessed with social media memes—almost always exists in the foreground, unable to blend in.
In Gone Girl, David Fincher harnessed that extracurricular charisma and gave Affleck the self-satirical role of a lifetime, peaking when his character is forced to hide from the paparazzi by donning a Mets hat. (Fincher, as the story goes, wanted to troll Affleck even further by making it a Yankees hat; Affleck refused.) The Way Back isn’t nearly so clever, and O’Connor’s directorial relationship to Affleck is much more deferential: He doesn’t use his star so much as provide him with a custom-made showcase, as he did in The Accountant, an absolutely bonkers movie that is basically Good Will Hunting plus The Bourne Identity with Affleck instead of Damon, and which Miles Surrey has, for some reason, seen eight times. The film’s opening sequence is essentially a one-man show, as Jack, a former high school basketball star whose life has collapsed for a host of reasons whose gradual unveiling gives the movie its shape, stumbles through a daily routine of physical labor and lonely self-medication; over the course of a single evening, he can make an entire case of beer disappear.
The bristly, embittered drunk is a borderline melodramatic cliché, but Affleck imbues it with a lived-in intelligence; when Jack phones his ex-wife (Janina Gavankar) to excoriate her for keeping tabs on him through his sister (Michaela Watkins), he nails the precise tone of a guy overcompensating for his sloppiness with sarcastically precise language and diction. The contrast between Jack’s verbal denials of unhappiness and the confessional slouch of his body language—the way his sunken features and sloping physique seem to be crying out for help—is affecting, and no matter how predictable the plot beats become once the character receives a job offer coaching his alma mater’s struggling hoops squad, the impact of these early scenes remains. We’re drawn in, and through a combination of skill, sentimentality, and shamelessness, the film keeps us there.
As a basketball movie, The Way Back is extremely fun stuff: I could have watched the scene when Jack gets a detailed scouting report on the shooting tendencies of his ragtag charges from his chemistry-teacher assistant coach (Al Madrigal) for two hours. The inspirational-coach subgenre is filled with examples of movie stars pantomiming athletic expertise—think Denzel Washington in Remember the Titans or Samuel L. Jackson in Coach Carter—but for whatever reason, Affleck sells not only the idea that his lumpy, lumbering alter ego used to have a wicked jump shot but also that Jack knows his X’s and O’s, probably because screenwriter Brad Ingelsby knows his. Not being based on a true story à la many of its predecessors, The Way Back has plenty of leeway to stack the deck against the undersized, dubiously skilled ballers of Bishop Hayes high school, and to create endearing ticks for a few key players: a lanky center (Melvin Gregg) whose misapplied belief in his “candy stroke” means he leaks out for 3-pointers instead of patrolling the paint; a gifted point guard (Brandon Wilson) who’s too soft-spoken to call his teammates out. The basketball scenes are fluid and well-directed, with choreography and shifts in momentum that ring true to life even as the squad’s mutation from a group of losers into a fine-tuned, full-court-pressing unit of killers is as fanciful as anything in Hoosiers—while, on the sideline, Affleck’s acting suggests that Gene Hackman’s and Dennis Hopper’s characters from that classic have become one person.
Probably the most interesting thing about The Way Back is the way it balances its That-Championship-Season tropes against Jack’s far less predetermined arc of trauma and recovery. Without spoiling the details of why he’s succumbed to such a vertiginous downward spiral, it’s enough to say that the script keeps piling on tragedies to the point that Jack’s excessive drinking seems less an unhealthy coping mechanism than an inevitable one—a discomfiting feeling that would be stronger if O’Connor made it clear that it emanated from the character’s broken headspace. Instead, The Way Back retains an objective tone that comes dangerously close to justifying self-destructive behavior, staying on the right side of that line largely due to Affleck’s refusal to lean into the script’s more indulgent choices. A scene when Jack is directly confronted by an authority figure sees him shift from shamed-faced apology to self-righteousness with believable speed and anger, and works against easy crowd-pleasing impulses; a late twist interlacing his personal problems with the team’s quest to make a playoff run for the first time since Jack patrolled the backcourt himself discombobulates our sports-movie expectations without fully sacrificing the genre’s pleasures. It also gives us a final scene that slots alongside the last shot of The Town in the Ben Affleck Comes to Terms With Himself in Front of a Large Body of Water Hall of Fame—minus the beard meant to represent the character’s personal growth, yes, but we can’t have everything.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.