The Way Back

The Way Back ★★★½

Modern Hollywood’s messiest comeback artist is finally ready to show his work on screen, and there isn’t a moment to waste. You can tell from the first minutes of “The Way Back” that construction worker Jack Cunningham is unlike any character Ben Affleck has ever played before — he’s not trying to impress anyone. There’s no twinkle in his eye, no swagger in his step, no “smartest guy in the room” energy to the way he carries himself. He murmurs when he talks, drinks a beer in the shower every morning, and sparks to the salesman at his neighborhood liquor store as if that’s the only stable relationship he still has left in his life.

Swollen and greasy (Affleck has never looked bigger, or seemed quite as small), Jack is a far cry from the chiseled Bruce Wayne, the brave Tony Mendez, or even the self-parodic cheater Affleck embodied in “Gone Girl.” Wasn’t this guy supposed to be Boston’s George Clooney, or at least its apology for Mark Wahlberg? What about the next Clint Eastwood? Cursed to be a movie star in an age that doesn’t need them, Affleck has grown almost unrecognizable from the middle-class matinee idol that Hollywood first swooned over in the late ’90s.

And yet, his compellingly underplayed performance in “The Way Back” feels like it might be the most personal thing he’s ever done. That’s not just because the meta-text of it all is so hard to ignore, and that Affleck shot this movie shortly after finishing a stint in rehab (the actor’s own misadventures with alcohol are chronicled by the tabloids, and his mea culpas by the Times). In fact, it has more to do with how Gavin O’Connor’s modest and moving sports drama refuses to let its leading man reclaim something of his old screen persona. It denies Affleck the crutch of his natural charisma, or the chance to hide behind a story that’s bigger than himself. In fact, this sober little studio movie is so uncommonly effective because of its steady insistence that life can’t be lived in reverse; that, contrary to its title, there’s no going back.