Entertainment

What critics are saying about ‘The Way Back,’ the new drama starring Ben Affleck

The reviews (both good and bad) of the Cambridge native's new movie.

Al Madrigal and Ben Affleck in "The Way Back."

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Ben Affleck’s newest movie hits close to home for the actor.

The Cambridge native returns to the big screen this weekend for “The Way Back,” his first solo lead role since 2016.

In the film, Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, a former high school basketball phenom who has settled into life as a construction worker with alcohol addiction. (Affleck has struggled with alcohol addiction himself, and has said that his heavy drinking contributed to his divorce from Jennifer Garner.) When his alma mater offers him a chance to coach the school’s underperforming squad, both Jack and the team hope to turn around their fortunes.

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Early critical response to the film has been largely positive, with review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes awarding “The Way Back” an 87 percent freshness rating at the time of this article’s publication.

Boston.com’s review of “The Way Back,” praised Affleck, writing that the actor “gives a raw, personal performance that elevates the film.” But in order to allow readers to sample a range of critical responses and make a decision on their own, we’ve rounded up what critics are saying — good, bad, and everything in between — about “The Way Back.”

The Good

Boston.com’s review of the film praised director Gavin O’Connor for focusing less on the basketball and more on the character’s addiction, praising Affleck’s performance.

Affleck’s Cunningham paints an ugly portrait of a man in denial: a bloated visage sloshing from scene to scene, lying about his drinking, and lashing out at anyone who questions him. During the moments when he appears to be getting back on track, you sincerely want him to succeed, which speaks both to Affleck’s acting abilities and his personal experiences with the material.

 

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Vulture’s Alison Willmore praised the film, writing that Affleck’s performance hinted at a new chapter in the actor’s career.

“The Way Back” is a reminder that movie stardom has never sat easily on Affleck, who was better at playing a despairing actor who got famous for playing a superhero in Hollywoodland than he was playing a superhero himself in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Freed up from that as Jack — puffy, disheveled, and more open to the camera than to anyone around him — he’s a poignant example of a high school hero gone to seed but also of a man who, in middle age, is struggling to find a way around the shut-down stoicism he was raised to aspire to. It’s a performance that suggests the most interesting stretch of Affleck’s career as an actor is still to come.

 

Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal praised director Gavin O’Connor as having a “special connection” with actors, which leads to great performances from the whole cast, most of all Affleck.

Mr. Affleck owns the role. He plays it with the subtlety of a character actor and the coiled ferocity of the star he has always been, through good roles (too many to count) and bad (the worst of the worst being Batman).

 

The AV Club’s Charles Bramesco wrote that Affleck’s performance was among the best of his career, praising the specificity that goes into Cunningham’s drinking routine and opining that in another timeline, this could be an Oscar-worthy performance.

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.

 

The So-So

Peter Travers of Rolling Stone said that while the film only succeeds in “fits and starts,” it nevertheless gets audiences to root for Cunningham, and in turn, Affleck.

Director Gavin O’Connor knows his way around athletic-event films (Miracle, Warrior) and had worked successfully with Affleck on The Accountant; he’s also aware that an up-from-the-bottom drama needs to do more than advance its star’s therapy. It has to strike a raw nerve and touch a universal chord — an achievement that regrettably comes in fits and starts here.


Lindsey Bahr of the Associated Press wrote that there was “noting particularly extraordinary” about the film except for Affleck’s performance. 

Affleck carries the film well on his larger-than-usual shoulders, capably showing all sides of a down-on-his-luck alcoholic — the funny, the sweet, the explosive and the self-destructive. It’s chilling to see the light go on in his eyes with a drink, and the moment when it goes out too. “The Way Back” is a promising move forward for a star who has always respectably skipped between genres. Still, it’s not as compelling as Affleck’s recent interviews about his own struggles, interviews characterized by honesty and specificity.


The Ugly

The Boston Globe’s Ty Burr found the film generic and lacking, though he did have praise for Affleck, who he wrote “gave a better performance than the movie deserves.”

Can a film be a compendium of clichés and still feel emotionally honest? “The Way Back” is a test case and, aside from the commitment shown by its cast, the answer is, sorry, no. But as a way back for the movie’s star, it’s a start.

 

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Benjamin Lee of The Guardian credited the film for “mercifully shying away from sentimental cliche” but also dinged it for “failing to add enough depth to work as something more substantive.”

The Way Back is a film stuck on the runway, quietly circling around, always threatening to fly but never managing to get off the ground. It was a cathartic experience for Affleck but for the rest of us, it carries very little weight.

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