For the past few years, Ben Affleck has been defined not so much by his professional output but by a single paparazzi photo from 2018. In it, he’s standing on an overcast beach with a towel wrapped around his stomach as he gives a thousand-yard stare into the surf; it was described much more evocatively around that time in a New Yorker essay entitled “The Great Sadness of Ben Affleck.” The combination of his noticeably huskier physique, his Ed Hardy fresco of a back tattoo, and his expression of utter despondence turned him into an instant meme. No matter that it was relatively public knowledge he was on some serious skids, having recently separated from wife Jennifer Garner and rumored to be grappling with a drinking problem. “Sadfleck,” a tragicomic avatar of soured masculinity, was born.
In Gavin O’Connor’s unaccountably strong new drama The Way Back, Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, a man not so far removed from this warped-mirror image of himself. He’s a high-functioning alcoholic who’s gotten the hang of concealing his protective shell of perpetual tipsiness. Between his morning shower beer, his discreet plastic-cup commute beer, several on-the-job beers at a construction site, and his nightly stupor at the neighborhood watering hole, he can keep himself sufficiently sedated from one day to the next. Affleck performs drunkenness with conviction and specificity, all too aware that verisimilitude won’t come from the right speech-slurring. The brilliance lies in the little grace notes that feel painfully true, like how he taps a finger on the can before popping a beer, sometimes with the nail and sometimes with the side of his thumb, or his method of loading each successive beer into the freezer, replacing it with the next on deck when he grabs the last.
Between the known metatext and Affleck’s bone-deep commitment, this moving central performance largely purges the film of its high potential for the maudlin. O’Connor and cowriter Brad Ingelsby take care of the rest, exercising admirable restraint as they stoke pathos and send their man down the road to redemption, a path often paved with over-the-top contrivances. Their trick is to approach the inspirational sports picture without irony and with great tact, embracing an inherent sentimentality while avoiding every cornball pitfall. (Jack’s rock bottom doesn’t go too far down, for example.) It’s a reminder that the most trite material—in this case, getting a second chance at making good—can be powerful when handled honestly.
Jack’s comfortable numbness gets disrupted by the reluctant agreement to coach his old high school’s basketball team, a scrappy underdog crew that’s seen better days. Though the metaphor may be a groaner, their shot at a comeback syncs up with Jack’s unobtrusively, right down to the deft withholding of the final shot. The obligatory ex-wife (Janina Gavankar) is spared most of the usual histrionics and other indignities, allowed instead to join Jack in his pain once its unspeakable cause has been revealed. As his sidekick, a bespectacled assistant coach/math teacher with a mind for stats, Al Madrigal gets to do some actorly heavy lifting and rises to the task. In one of the more affecting shots, Affleck drifts through the foreground of a frame that stays on Madrigal as he telegraphs the resignation that Jack’s beyond his help.
O’Connor, whose experience in the genre includes such well-received dramas as Warrior and Miracle, gets a lot done in long takes. The standout is Jack’s eventual breakthrough in rehab; in another timeline, that’s Affleck’s Oscar reel, the scene clinching his reentry to Hollywood and the public’s good graces. He’ll just have to settle for the knowledge that this showing can stand comparison with his best. It makes a compelling argument for movie stardom as a potent force of audience association and identification. We shed the inevitable eye-water because it’s Ben Affleck up there, a living person with whom we’ve cultivated a relationship over two-plus decades onscreen. O’Connor leaves Affleck high above the ocean, on a basketball court overlooking an idyllic shore. In one shot, we can see just how high he’s risen since that day at the beach.