The Way Back Review
It's fair to begin a look at The Way Back with the film's director Peter Weir. The Australian filmmaker has made just fourteen feature films over a span of thirty-six years now. Since Green Card in 1990 he's been especially inactive, directing only four movies. When Weir has gotten something to the screen it's generally been a victory for moviegoers who favor traditional, well-made cinema with heart and intelligence. Four of the seven films prior to The Way Back earned Weir a Best Director Oscar nomination, with two also yielding BAFTA awards. Weir, then, is much honored and has generally done quite well at the box office also, even if his name alone might not put people in seats. The Mosquito Coast was not received especially well by critics or audiences upon release but Weir still has avoided making anything perceived as an outright flop. So, why did The Way Back, a movie clamoring to be seen collectively in a dark room on a large screen and one of the sort that not long ago might have had Oscar voters falling over themselves to celebrate with nominations in a multitude of categories, have such an apparently difficult time getting seen?
Such a question might be of little concern to anyone else but it interested me quite a bit, enough to require a viewing of The Way Back to see if maybe Weir lost the plot. What I found upon watching was that, while The Way Back may not be one of Weir's best works, the real disappointment would be if there really isn't a significant audience out there any longer for this movie. It's not the sort of thing that can be made cheaply or quickly or by someone without a talent and feel for the art of crafting a motion picture. We have hardly any heirs to Hawks and Wyler and Lean left among directors and it struck me that Weir is kind of in that same category to an extent. It also occurred to me that my parents would probably enjoy The Way Back, that a lot of people's parents would actually, and that we might all appreciate it more in a decade or two.
The beginning of the film contains possibly its most emotional scene. A crying woman testifies against her husband, confirming Soviet accusations against him. The Polish soldier (played by Jim Sturgess) is punished by being sent to a Siberian gulag. In the camp he meets a hardened group of men, most notably an American (Ed Harris) and a violent Russian (Colin Farrell). These three and four others manage to escape together during a snowstorm. Their arduous journey, which results in death for some of the men and also finds them reluctantly allowing a girl (Saoirse Ronan) to join, forms the basis of the film, taking them thousands of miles across the harsh wilderness. The terrain includes both extremes - brutally cold areas buried in snow and barren, dry desert.
The front of the cover for this package boasts "INSPIRED BY REAL EVENTS" in all caps just underneath the title. Credits further mention that it was "inspired by the book" The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz. The latter definitely seems true but the former, the real events part, is apparently more up for debate as there have been disagreements over the veracity of Rawicz's book. This, I think, is a decent-sized problem for the film, at least for the emotional impact of it. If the story is made up or largely untrue then we have little more than a movie where a bunch of unwell foreign guys plus an American walk a very long distance with very little payoff. What these people in the movie do is extraordinary but much of that relies on people actually having done it. It's very dependent on that human connection. The other reservation I have, based on an initial viewing, is the almost tedious nature of the constant suffering and grueling toll these people must endure in their quest for survival. There is little in the realm of positivity to take away here. It's a harsh, sobering journey where the joys are given in small doses and you have to make yourself feel nearly numb by the end.
That said, simply accepting The Way Back for what it is reveals a well-made, extremely atmospheric work of consequence. Its impact is quite strong and I wonder whether this might be a situation where a reasonably lengthy film would have been made even better by adding a bit more heft to the running time.
Peter Weir's The Way Back is released in Region A on a locked Blu-ray disc from Image Entertainment. It's single-layered. American publicity materials have Ed Harris top-billed while Jim Sturgess seems to lead the cast in the UK. Funny how that works.
The 2.35:1 image shows a nice level of depth and detail. It seems to be up to the task of presenting quite a few darker scenes in crisp sharpness with good contrast. Perhaps a little overly saturated if compared against more naturalistic realities but this might very well be the intended look. I couldn't claim authority there. The picture is immaculately clean, showing no damage, and retains some grain to establish a decent film-like appearance.
Audio is an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that registers especially well. Dialogue emerges without issue but the real point of strength is the treatment of ambient sounds and effects. It makes for a pleasantly immersive experience. Subtitles are available in English for the hearing impaired and Spanish. The non-English portions of the film are automatically subtitled, without any discernible way to remove them. The subtitles are white in color.
A standard-issue behind-the-scenes featurette called "The Journey of the Journey" (30:57) is the main supplement. The trailer (2:00) for the film has also been included. Both are in standard definition
Previews for The Resident and Every Day begin automatically after inserting the disc.