‘The Way Back’: Ben Affleck Stars in a Surprisingly Catholic Redemption Drama

‘The Way Back’: Ben Affleck Stars in a Surprisingly Catholic Redemption Drama March 5, 2020

Ben Affleck in ‘The Way Back’/Warner Bros.

UPDATE 3/20/2020: Warner Bros. has announced that The Way Back will be coming early to on-demand platforms, available on Tuesday, March 24, for $19.99. According to The Hollywood Reporter:

Warner Bros. is making the Ben Affleck movie The Way Back, which is currently in theaters, available on demand on digital retail platforms, the studio said Thursday, as cinemas go dark amid the global coronavirus pandemic.

“With audiences largely unable to view films in theatrical release under current circumstances, we have decided to provide the alternative of early digital ownership of our currently released titles to people looking for great entertainment options,” Warner Bros. Pictures Group Toby Emmerich said in a statement.

Family-friendly movie source Movieguide is also maintaining a list of movies coming early to VOD. Click here for that.


Hitting theaters on March 6, Warner Bros’ The Way Back is not intended to be a faith-based movie, but it’s pretty darn Catholic for a mainstream film, with a deeply affecting, honest portrayal from star Ben Affleck.

Fresh off his own divorce (from openly Christian Jennifer Garner) and battle with alcoholism, Affleck stars as Jack Cunningham, a construction worker in the blue-collar port city of San Pedro, California. A former Catholic-high-school basketball star, he’s separated from his wife (Janina Gavankar) and drowning his sorrows in an endless parade of beer cans and liquor shots.

(Affleck even reportedly had a drinking relapse during preparation for the film, and Garner stepped in to help keep the film moving forward.)

When the priest that runs his old high school approaches him about coaching the school’s lackluster basketball team, Jack reluctantly accepts. Although his hard-drinking ways continue, he slowly starts to come out of his sullen, dead-eyed existence and rediscover a reason for living.

Now, Jack’s not an island. He does have a sister and friends who care about him, but he’s nursing a deep wound that refuses to heal. Just when things really start to look up for him, the almost inevitable self-sabotage threatens to destroy this fragile new life.

To me, the weak link in this is Jack’s wife, Angela. While the mutual tragedy that wrecked their marriage has taken a visible toll on Jack, Angela looks prim, pretty and well-put-together. She wears a cross in their first meeting, but, even though she and Jack aren’t even divorced yet — and, if one assumes they’re Catholics, certainly not annulled — she’s already got a new boyfriend.

Logic would dictate that Angela would be suffering at least as much as Jack, but it doesn’t show in her looks or the actress’ performance, and that makes her a less sympathetic character.

Some critics have complained about the amount of profanity in the movie — but Jack’s foul mouth earns him gentle but persistent rebukes from the team’s chaplain. The team members have their own language issues, but I was grateful that these Catholic-school boys aren’t portrayed as the alienated, nihilistic wrecks so often seen today in any drama featuring teens. They’re basically good kids, just lacking focus and direction. The relationships between the boys and the adults in their lives, priests and lay, are free of depictions of abuse of any kind — and that’s refreshing.

I wasn’t that concerned about the language issue. I’m a football fan, and I spend time with other fans, and both players and fans are known for using colorful language in the heat of a game — so it’s realistic. But, it’s not condoned or celebrated, and that sets The Way Back apart from how just about every other mainstream movie and TV show deals with profanity.

Affleck is a bona fide movie star, but like fellow Boston native Mark Wahlberg, he sinks effortlessly into the blue-collar, working-man role. He’s not showy or exaggerated; he’s just real (down to the grime embedded around his fingernails). At 47, Affleck is handsome, but at this point, not in a slick, pretty-boy way. He looks like a man, and he brings up Jack’s emotional turmoil without ever resorting to histrionics or sentimentality.

The one thing that didn’t work for me was the end. Although I know it draws on the experiences of Affleck’s alcoholic father and his own history, it felt more like something that would happen to a movie star with addiction, rather than a guy who drives a battered pickup truck and lives in a bare-bones walk-up apartment.

The faith elements are woven throughout but are never intrusive. They’re natural to the setting of a Catholic high school and Jack’s background. Fans expecting an altar-call or big confession moment might be disappointed, but there is prayer and a recognition that the true mission of a Catholic school is to make people of faith (a good reminder for some Catholic schools who’ve strayed from their original identity).

Also, there are no sex scenes, no nudity (we do see Jack in the shower, but nothing is shown) and nobody gets shot. So there’s that.

In real life, Affleck has come to an accommodation with faith. During their marriage, Garner returned to attending the Methodist church of her youth. Affleck told Beliefnet:

“I go to the Methodist Church, (my) kids (are) baptized and I got introduced to Christianity a little bit later in life …

“One of the things that I found most beautiful about it, and I struggle with my faith, I struggle with belief, but I do see there’s something enormously beautiful and elegant about the notion that we are all sinners, and that it’s our job to find our redemption, to find God’s love, to redeem ourselves, to live the best life that we can, to love one another, to not judge one another, and to forgive one another.”

One hopes that, for the sake of his children, Affleck continues to find his way to God. The Way Back ends on a hopeful note, and while the struggle with substance abuse lasts a lifetime, Affleck has a reason to believe.

Also from Beliefnet:

“I really don’t want my children to pay for my sins,” he told ABC’s Diane Sawyer in a recent interview. “Or to be afraid for me, which is one of the hard parts of being the child of an alcoholic. You think, ‘What if my dad gets drunk? What if he does something stupid? What if he ends up on ‘TMZ,’ you know? And on my newsfeed and other kids see it?”

The Way Back (official site here) is rated R, and suitable for older teens and up (provided Christian parents have the profanity talk), especially because it refuses to glamorize drinking. It’s a gritty, moving, heartfelt film that explores the heart of a man in pain, reaching for a light he can hardly believe exists — and Christ’s Church is there to lend him a hand.

Image: Warner Bros

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About Kate O'Hare
Based in Los Angeles, Kate O'Hare is a veteran entertainment journalist, Social Media Manager for Family Theater Productions and a rookie screenwriter. You can read more about the author here.

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