- Dir: Gavin O’Connor. Cast: Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Janina Gavankar, Michaela Watkins, Brandon Wilson, Will Ropp. 15 cert, 108 mins
Finding the Way Back feels like an apt title for the new Ben Affleck film, since it’s a phrase that has probably been scrawled on his agent’s whiteboard for the last five years. Following a spate of celebrity over-exposure in the early 2000s – co-starring Jennifer Lopez, as you may recall – Affleck began to age into something of a new-school Hollywood stalwart.
He directed three well-received features for Warner Bros, the last of which, Argo, won the Best Picture Oscar in 2013. And bookending this already-hot streak were his two finest performances to date, as the Superman actor George Reeves in Hollywoodland and the hapless husband Nick Dunne in Gone Girl. But then in 2013, Affleck was cast as Batman: a career move that seemed to immediately hit pause on this fruitful mid-period. His career, and certainly profile, became all but consumed by the ill-fated DCU franchise, while outside of work he weathered multiple stints in rehab for alcoholism and, in 2018, divorce.
This latest project – Affleck’s first after formally stepping down from his superhero commitments – jabs hopefully at the play button again. While it isn’t quite a triumphant return to form, it at least reminds us – and hopefully also Affleck – of what he’s capable of bringing to the table.
Aptly enough, the film itself is something of a comeback drama, about a man whose sense of purpose has been long obscured by alcoholism and heartbreak. Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, a bearded, bearlike construction worker whose days begin with a beer in the shower and only get hazier from there, until he finally blacks out at his local bar, or just slumped by the fridge.
This routine has calcified since his separation from his wife (The Morning Show’s Janina Gavankar) a little over a year ago, but it’s intriguingly punctured when the headmaster of his old Catholic high school (John Aylward) summons him to his office and asks him to consider becoming their new basketball coach. Back in his youth, Jack was a champion himself, and a pennant still hangs in the gymnasium in his honour – a quiet little acknowledgement of potential that went unmet, or is maybe yet to be fulfilled.
In a terrifically well-played scene, Affleck shows us Jack rehearsing the telephone call in which he intends to turn down the offer, and getting progressively drunker with every take. The mechanics of alcoholism are observantly but unshowily captured, from the constant fridge-to-freezer shuffling of cans to the nervous triple-tap of Jack’s fingers on the rim of each one before he snaps open the ring pull. Yet the next morning, rather than making the call, he turns up at the court and starts work.
At this point, a strong whiff of the underdog sports drama wafts in: naturally, the team is a ragtag bunch of stragglers, with personal issues of their own to overcome before victory on the court can be assured. But in his own faltering, imperfect but well-intentioned and occasionally inspired way, Jack helps them through, and helps himself in the process. Finding the Way Back might not be an overtly religious film – or rather “faith-based”, to use the current industry euphemism – but its portrayal of redemption as a day-in, day-out struggle rather than an uplifting, one-off hop, skip and jump back onto the righteous path does feel authentically Catholic.
The overall structure and game plan are deeply familiar, from the temporary withholding of a certain vital piece of Jack’s backstory for maximum impact to the flatly functional supporting roles played by Gavankar, Michaela Watkins (as Jack’s sister) and Al Madrigal (as the assistant coach).
But both Affleck and director Gavin O’Connor, who last worked together on the offbeat thriller The Accountant, aren’t just passing the time here, and consistently treat the material with a respect it doesn’t always obviously command. Every scene is shot beautifully – not to mention intensely seriously – by director of photography Eduard Grau, while Rob Simonson’s light-touch, piano-led score brings an emotional freshness to the kind of scenes we’ve seen many times before.
Finding The Way Back was released in America earlier this year simply as The Way Back, but its original title was The Has-Been, which was presumably abandoned on the grounds of it being a marketing nightmare. Picture the poster. “Ben Affleck is…” – well, you see the problem. But at least we now know that he isn’t.
Available on demand from Friday