By John H. Foote
Alcoholism has been portrayed truthfully on screen since The Lost Weekend (1945) won the Academy Award for Best Picture during the war years. Through history great actors such as Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick in Days of Wine and Roses (1962) and, perhaps best of all, Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas (1995) have given stellar performances as alcoholics in many great films.
Ben Affleck is a recovering alcoholic, he knows the ground, he knows more about being an alcoholic than he would like to know. Fearlessly, Affleck portrays a drunk in this new film, and gives what is arguably the bravest, finest performance of his career. As an actor, Affleck needs this right now, because I worry audiences have forgotten that when he applies himself, he is a very good actor, but these days he is thought of as a director. Though his last directorial effort was a handsome failure, Live by Night (2017), we can expect great films from him in the future.
His first three directing efforts were shockingly great. Gone Baby Gone (2007) contained an impressive performance from his younger brother Casey, and was directed with confidence and subtle power. The Town (2010) was even better, bigger, and he gave a solid performance in the film, one of the best of his career. More important he spun a complicated yarn about a group of thieves hitting areas in Boston over the bridge, in the tough side of town. Argo (2012), his third film as a director, won no less than the Academy Award for Best Picture, while Affleck was not nominated for Best Director and settled for the Directors Guild of America Award as the year’s finest director. Among those he bested were Steven Spielberg for Lincoln (2012) and Katherine Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty (2012), while Ang Lee won his second Oscar for Best Director for Life of Pi (2012). There are those who believe, me included, that the shock and sting of Affleck being snubbed for Best Director is exactly what pushed Argo over the finish line, so incensed were Academy members that the man was ignored for Best Director when he clearly deserved a nomination. And then he sat by (thrilled I might add) while his younger brother, Casey again, won an Oscar for Best Actor for Manchester By the Sea (2016) in which the young man gave one of the finest performances in American film history. He was the ultimate supportive big brother, but sort of in his younger brother’s shadow.
Ben Affleck is an Oscar winning writer and producer and, in the right role, a damned fine actor. Though he has had many missteps along the way, he took control of his career after the nightmare that was Gigli (2003) and has been on a strong path ever since. Terrific in self-directed performances in both The Town and Argo, he also had a stint as Batman/ Bruce Wayne in Batman vs. Superman (2016) and Justice League (2017) before hanging up the cape and cowl. Personally, I thought he was a terrific Dark Knight, a little older, a little wiser, and equally effective as Bruce Wayne. Outstanding years earlier for in Good Will Hunting (1997), Shakespeare in Love (1998) and for Kevin Smith in Chasing Amy (1997) and again in Dogma (1999) there is no question he can act, but also no secret that he needs a strong character to play, a decent screenplay and a solid director. I would have liked to have seen Affleck as Tom Buchanan opposite Di Caprio’s mysterious millionaire in The Great Gatsby (2013) but no such luck.
He might have found his finest role in The Way Back, which is something of a very personal film for him, and a comeback of sorts. Jack (Affleck) is broken, his heart and soul shattered by a tragic event earlier in his life, and he cannot manage to climb out of the toilet that has become his life. Each night he drinks himself into a drunken stupor to be carried home by the man who did the same thing for Jack’s father and starts the entire cycle again the next day. The only person he seems to have a connection with is the salesclerk at the liquor store, which he frequents each and every day. He is large, grimy looking, his bulk no longer the sculpted physique of Batman, but bloated and slimy looking, as though the booze exited his body through his pores each morning. Jack looks like he smells, and I am sure he does. Booze has a terrible hold on him, as does the past, but his worst enemy is himself, stuck in the quagmire feeling sorry for himself.
Jack needs the kind of help one cannot ask for because it means exposing the darkest elements of himself and he is not ready to do that. When confronted by anyone about his past and what is troubling him, he lashes out in self defensive rage, unable to articulate what troubles him. How does one explain this level of despair?
A former basketball star in high school, he blew a future as a pro, and now works as a handy man, when he is invited to coach his high school’s team when their coach has a heart attack. With a miserable 1-9 record, they are dreadful, and they know it, and the hope is that Jack can turn things around.
Now this is where the film becomes something different. This is not a redemption film as we have seen before, turning the team around will not heal Jack, he has to do that by himself and might not have the strength of character to do it. But then he has known that for years, he is the least surprised by his weakness. Devastated by the death of his son to cancer, Jack has never healed, never grieved, nor forgiven himself for his child’s death. Instead he has retreated into the bottle, drinking until he backs out, trying to quell the pain but knowing deep inside he cannot ever do it.
Talking tough to the team of ragtag players and guzzling booze from a water bottle, incredibly they begin to win. But this is not the kind of film where the success of the team gives Jack his redemption, oh no, his troubles are far too big for that. He does begin a tentative reconnection with his ex-wife Angela (Janina Gavankar), keeping her at a comfortable distance, but at least speaking with her, which he stopped doing after the death of their son.
Gavin O’Connor has directed sports films before, the excellent Miracle (2004) about the Gold medal winning hockey team in 1980 and gave the film an intensity and realism in the on-ice sequences. He brings that same wizardry to the basketball scenes, but this is less a sports film than a character study of a man at the very bottom of the pit of despair. Jack can go no lower, but can he decide to climb out and live again? He is aware there is a whole world around him, and there are people who care about him, but can he find the love for himself he needs to survive what is happening to him, or will his self-destruction be his undoing.
Potbellied, worn out, pasty and greasy skinned, Ben Affleck gives a brilliant performance as Jack, a man who seems hellbent on destroying himself and is unstoppable in that single-minded quest. It is a major piece of acting, one that elevates the film to quite something else, and suggests that, like Clint Eastwood before him, Affleck is becoming a better actor with age. This Jack is lived, and has lived hard, seen the bottom of more than one toilet, woke up in mysterious surroundings more than he cares to admit, and often has no clue how he arrived back in his home after a night of drinking. But more, the despair he carries with him, wearing it like a second skin and we see how it weighs on him, pulling him down. So good is the performance he might just be an Oscar nominee for Best Actor next year, if the fickle Academy members can keep the film in their minds that long.
Affleck gives a performance that is superb, but the film he gives it in is average, a solid movie, but not a great film. And that is OK, because it allows the greatness of Affleck’s work to shine ever brighter. And shine he does, like an exploding star streaking across the sky, reminding us of its mere existence. Affleck is still here folks, and how bright he shines in this dark film.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.