Austin Burke’s review published on Letterboxd:
Ben Affleck is the kind of guy (in my opinion) that you root for. He’s calm, collected, down to earth (compared to most actors), and he has does some incredible work. After all of his solid performances; The Way Back has (somehow) become his best to date. It may not even be the best movie he has been the centerpiece of, but this character perfectly suites his skillset. This is everything we love and want to see from Ben. His demeanor keeps you concerned, yet his past (and the uncovering of that) reveals the reason why. He also makes a mean High School basketball coach. The passion for the game (coming from his character), was conveyed perfectly. It’s all so subtle, but the subtleties drive this film to the finish line. There were so many times where Gavin O’Connor would flex his chops as a Director. The restraint shown in the first act to hold onto certain reveals was a gutsy call.
We could have easily spouted out some exposition to fill in the audience on elements we didn’t need to know yet, but they decided to hold onto those moments. When the moments come in the second act; the impact is much greater. We have two major storylines happening at once, and they both pack a punch. The basketball element couldn’t fully avoid genre tropes. It’s unfortunate because one or two different decisions could have made this an all-time sports classic. Admittedly, I am a sucker for a good feel-good sports drama, but this one manages to hit enough high-notes to not make me feel bad about it. There isn’t too much you can do with switching up the “sports-movie formula,” but there is another storyline that manages to top it in terms of the focus. Jack is an alcoholic, he is dealing with multiple demons, and he is struggling with his past. All of these things impact his role as coach in a realistic and heartbreaking way.
This film doesn’t shy away from allowing things to play out as they would in real life. Not every plot-thread gets a storybook ending, but we should expect nothing less from O’Connor. The final scene is great, but I am still not all in on the ending. There were a few things I feel we needed to acknowledge before fading to black, and we just didn’t get around to it. It also doesn’t focus in on the individual team-members all that much. We spend time with some of them, but we never followup on a few of those elements. The focus is (understandingly) Jack and his path, but the film sets up a few too many plot-threads for its own good. The movie still managed to hit hard, stick with me, and bring home an Oscar nomination-worthy performance. They will forget how incredible Affleck was, and I will be extremely upset, but we need to make an effort for that to not happen. Who knows what 2020 will bring us, but The Way Back is the one of the best movies of the year (so far). Let’s see if this trend continues.