Friday, January 28, 2011



- THE WAY BACK somehow got lost in the shuffle of the holiday prestige movie season. Without the distribution and marketing backing of a major movie studio, the film got a very limited release in late 2010, and is only now, rather quietly, getting some expanded theatrical play across the country. But make no mistake - The Way Back is no quiet little indie release. On the contrary, this is epic movie-making at its finest. This is acclaimed director Peter Weir - he of The Truman Show and Master & Commander fame - doing the kind of movie that he does best. This is a huge, sprawling adventure story, filled with great actors like Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, and Jim Sturgess bringing all kinds of gravitas. You may not have heard a lot about The Way Back, but I'd urge you to run and check it out immediately if you're in the mood for a badass, epic adventure movie. This is one you'll want to see on the bigscreen.

The Way Back tells the story (based on a true account, although the details of its legitimacy have been disputed) of a group of men who have been imprisoned in a Siberian gulag during World War II. Some were falsely accused by an increasingly paranoid communist Soviet regime. Others are legitimate criminals who will not hesitate to maim and murder to get what they want. Regardless, the gulag prison is a rough place - a wretched hive located in the middle of a vast (and freezing cold) wasteland. The prisoners' greatest obstacle to escape is therefore not the guards or the guard dogs who patrol the borders of the gulag, but the elements themselves. Even if one were to escape, they'd still be stranded in an unforgiving tundra, with no traces of civilization nearby. Nowhere to go to. Nowhere to run.

However, we first meet our protagonist, Janusz (pronounced "Ya-noosh"), as he's brought before a Soviet official and accused of treason. Somehow, they've gotten his wife - clearly against her will - to testify that Janusz is, in fact, a traitor. With no one to stand up for him, Janusz is found guilty, and sentanced to hard time in the gulag. But Janusz cannot bring himself to accept his fate. Driven by his desire to see his wife again, he hatches a risky and dangerous plan to escape. Joined by a group of several fellow inmates, Janusz decides to make a run for it, and to embark on the long and perilous trek from Siberia to India - the nearest land not under Communist rule (to be fair, they don't quite realize that at first - they think that if they can make it to Mongolia, they'll be good to go). The band of brothers (and one sister) trek through snow-covered mountains, arid deserts, rugged hills and more to get to freedom.

Director Peter Weir quite simply knows how to make this kind of story as epic as can be. He mixes sweeping shots of the snow and sand with more personal moments, taking full advantage of his talented cast's endless amount of charisma and badassery. The Way Back just feels like a good, old-fashioned adventure. No crazy CGI, no quick-cutting camera movements - just classic cinematography in the tradition of the great Hollywood epics of old. Some of the remote landscapes featured are just stunning as well - it's no wonder then that the movie was co-produced by National Geographic. The script, too, has moments of intensity and moments of dry humor. There are some great little exchanges between the motley crew of characters. There's also an appropriately grand symphonic score that does a nice job of accentuating the feeling of peril and high drama that permeates the film.

And as I've mentioned, this is a cast of actors that you want to follow to ends of the earth. As Janusz, Jim Sturges does an excellent job - the heart and soul of the film, and a guy who you believe would have the courage and willpower to embark on this seemingly impossible mission. He's almost like a real-life version of Frodo Baggins - a guy who knows he has to just muster up his strength to keep going, and someone who gradually comes to realize that apart from his own quest, he's become the defacto leader of a group that is depending on him for guidance and strength. It's an excellent, noteworthy performance from Sturges, and I think that, because of this film, he's now an actor whose career I will definitely be paying attention to.

Colin Farrell is also really great in this one, as an unstable lowlife criminal named Valka. Farrell has done a great job of picking out-of-the-box roles in the last few years. Where once he was thought of more as a generic leading-man type, he's now become a really interesting actor to watch. As Valka, he's a violent, half-mad murderer who is the true wild card of Janusz' group of escapees. And Farrell seems to relish the opportunity to play this type of character - he's a real scene-stealer, and the movie gains an added level of intensity and unpredictability whenever Valka is onscreen.

Speaking of intensity though ... holy crap, Ed freakin' Harris absolutely rules it as the American prisoner known only as Mr. Smith (yep, when asked what his first name is, he simply replies "Mister." How sweet is that?). I was sort of joking before the movie about to what degree Ed Harris would bring the pure ownage, but the truth is I wasn't sure. Well, consider the ownage brought. As Smith, Harris is the soft-spoken but tough-as-nails elder statesman of the group - the rugged American who tells Janusz early on that his biggest weakness is kindness, but who slowly but surely reveals that it may just be a weakness of his as well. Later on in the film, as Harris begins to succumb to the strain of the long journey, and must dig down deep to find the will to go on ... well, let's just say the gravitas levels go through the roof. It's a shame that The Way Back didn't have the visibility to land on most Oscar-voters' radars, because there are a couple of performances in this one, Harris in particular, that I think merit some serious consideration. The rest of the supporting cast is also really great, and there are a number of talented actors in this one who really show some excellent chops. If there's any one complaint about the cast, it's simply that some of the actors are a bit too similar looking, and sometimes its hard to keep track of who's who. It's a problem I also had recently with Centurian - a thematically similar movie about a band of badasses on the run.

If there's anything that feels off about the movie, I think it's simply that the pacing is a little jumpy at times. The scale and scope of The Way Back is so big, that it seems like Weir really had to work to squeeze in the entirety of his characters' journey. To that end, while some portions of the adventure feel appropriately epic and drawn-out, others are a bit rushed-seeming. In particular, the movie ends somewhat abruptly, in a way that leaves a couple of loose ends. That said, I was pretty surprised by the creative way in which Weir chose to bookend his film, with an unusual montage sequence that fast-forwards through time and through the life of Janousz. Without spoiling anything, I'll just say that it was a unique way to tie up a lot of the movie's underlying themes. More specifically, even though this is in some ways a straightforward man vs. nature adventure film, there is also a very intriguing historical and political context here - a look at the rapid rise of Communism during and after World War II, and the effect of the war in making the world a much smaller place, in some ways. There's definitely some material in the film that will have you running a couple of Wikipedia searches post-viewing.

All in all, I found The Way Back to be an immensely refreshing and satisfying movie, packed with any number of harrowing scenes of danger and drama. Filled with great performances, and skillfully directed in grand, old-school fashion by the great Peter Weir, this is one adventure that you don't want to miss.

My Grade: A-

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