Jack Cunningham was a HS basketball phenom who walked away from the game, forfeiting his future. Years later, when he reluctantly accepts a coaching job at his alma mater, he may get one last shot at redemption.
Opening with a somewhat tense family gathering, The Way Back explores the difficulty that accompanies coping with the loss of a family member. The catch, however, is that viewers are unaware of the loss until well into the movie. Jack Cunningham is single, a regular at his local bar, and he has no kids or romantic prospects—or at least that’s what viewers are led to believe.
When Father Devine asks Jack to coach the basketball team at his old high school, Bishop Hayes, he is initially opposed. After thinking on it for a night—or should I say drinking on it, as he finishes an entire case of beer on his own—Jack decides to coach the team. Viewers are not given an explanation as to why he goes from adamantly against coaching to walking onto the court as head coach.
Throughout the film, Jack struggles with angry outbursts, excessive cursing, and binge drinking. On multiple occasions, he is seen being carried home from the bar by a good Samaritan. He drinks liquor out of his coffee cup every morning; he finishes every day with multiple beers.
After taking the job at Bishop Hayes, he seems to be doing better—even drinking less. The team is looking up—he is strict with the players, yet it is clear that he does care about them and about the game. He even turns away from the bar one night—ultimately showing a great improvement.
While getting lunch with his wife, Angela (viewers learn that they have been separated for over a year), Jack discovers that she is seeing someone new, but agrees to go to a birthday party with her. It is at this party that viewers are shown the real reason for Jack’s behavior: Jack and Angela lost their nine-year-old son to cancer and are at the party to support one of their sons’ friends who survived the cancer. Just weeks later, Angela and Jack visit those same friends in the hospital as they receive devastating news about their son. Jack is sent spiraling yet again.
At this point, Jack hits an all-time low. He gets fired from coaching for drinking around the players. He then drives home drunk with another woman, crashes his car, and breaks into someone’s house. The film picks up the next day with him in the hospital, having drunkenly fallen into the street. It is only after realizing the ways in which he has put his life in danger that he seeks the help he so desperately needs. He apologizes to Angela and then checks into a rehab center (or at least that’s what it looks like, though never specified).
The end of the film alludes to Jack’s recovery… and that’s it. The movie is over. There is little resolution. In fact, the end of the movie is rather abrupt and leaves viewers wondering why there isn’t more to the story. What happened to the team? Do Jack and Angela get back together? What actually happened to their friend’s son—is the cancer back? Did he die? So many questions left without answers!
The Way Back leaves viewers wanting, but in doing so it also portrays the uncertainty of recovering from a loss. The whole movie shows Jack’s worst attributes—constant cursing, drinking, anger, etc. It doesn’t sugar coat the difficulties that he is facing. So yes, it does leave uncertainty, but that could be to prove the point that there isn’t certainty in recovery. Recovery takes determination to fight through failures even when it seems hopeless.
This film created a fantastic platform to share Christ through Jack’s recovery—but it didn’t use it. The whole movie seemed to be placing little instances where God’s light could shine through, but each time it was covered up. References to “f***ing your sister” and “sucking your wife’s d***” directly contradict the positivity in the film. Constant vulgar statements and cursing at the children, at the referees, and at his family overshadow Jack’s progress. It’s heartbreaking to see such a great platform for Christianity be shattered by negativity and sin.
Even though it is littered with negativity, The Way Back is a good movie in the sense that it’s well-made, it’s entertaining, and the message of hope for recovery is great. It leaves room for interpretation, which, despite producing uncertainty, allows those struggling to see that they are not alone in their feelings of hopelessness.
Since alcohol abuse and constant language, both in cursing and vulgarity, are heavy themes all their own, The Way Back is not Dove-approved.
The Dove Take:
Though The Way Back does a great job of depicting a broken man as he fights alcoholism and tries to get his life back on track in the wake of a family tragedy, vulgar language and constant alcohol abuse create a heavy, sometimes hopeless mood.