By Leah Greenblatt
March 04, 2020 at 09:00 AM EST
Richard Foreman/Warner Bros.

We all know, logically, that actors aren’t the roles the play — that Ben Affleck isn’t actually Batman any more than he’s an astronaut or a bank robber or an autistic accountant with a gift for mortal combat.

But when a movie like The Way Back appears on his resumé, it’s almost impossible not to transpose life and art. Here is a movie star who has publicly shared his decades-long battle with alcoholism, a two-time Oscar winner whose career slump and personal struggles seem to run exactly parallel to that addiction. And here he is playing a 40-something man whose drinking has contaminated nearly every good thing — his marriage, his family, his livelihood — to the point that it might end him, unless he can grab onto one last chance at redemption and make it stick.

Back might not be a great movie, but it does feel like the best thing the actor has done in a long time: a sensitive, sobering character study that nicely underplays its hand until it eventually tips over into something more like conventional melodrama. (Which even then, has its own satisfactions.)

Affleck is Jack Cunningham, a construction worker somewhere in blue-collar Southern California who starts every day with a beer in the shower and a few glugs of clear liquor in his coffee mug. Eight hours later, he pops another can from the cooler he keeps in his truck, then heads to the bar.

At least he seems like a fairly easygoing drunk, more a slow slumper than a screamer or a fighter. But it’s still taken a toll: The concerns of his worried sister (Michaela Watkins) and estranged wife (Janina Gavankar) are met with sullenness, resentment, or at best, silence; if there's anything that manages to make him smile, it's usually at the bottom of a bottle.

So when the pastor principal at his old high school calls to offer his onetime star player a job coaching their now-faltering boys’ basketball team, his first response is to insist over the phone that his life is “very full right now. Very full.” His 14th, after about a case of Coors, is a slurred, half-conscious yes.

The idea of basketball as a vehicle for spiritual redemption is hardly new to cinema; the general arc of The Way Back echoes many films that came before, from Hoosiers to He Got Game. But even as director Gavin O’Connor (who previously paired with Affleck on The Accountant) and his co-screenwriter Brad Ingelsby (Out of the Furnace) mostly follow the familiar contours of triumphant sports movies, they seem to get that the audience knows them just as well.

So they introduce the ragtag members of the school’s underdog squad mostly in shorthand — the swaggering hotshot, the awkward one, the kid whose dad doesn’t support his dream — and often freeze-frames game outcomes with final scores in lieu of playing them out. That still leaves enough room to fill in the outlines of supporting characters like Jack’s exhausted ex, and his assistant coach (Al Madrigal), a low-key math teacher working hard to keep the peace.

Though of course the heart of it all, rightly, hinges on Affleck's Jack. Bearded, thickly flannelled, and a little bit stunned, he’s like a resentful bear who’s been woken halfway through hibernation. As his senses begin to return — between regular practice and sketching out plays during the downtime on his day job, he hardly has time to keep up his standard blood alcohol levels — you can see that the tingling effect that actually feeling things again has on him, and the sting of it too.

If the Why He Drinks backstory introduced midway through feels both unnecessary and a little unfair — does addiction really need to be justified with a well-packaged tragedy? — Affleck keeps the movie anchored with his rumpled, unshowy performance: a man killing himself to live, until he can start to believe that maybe there's a better way. B

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