REVIEW: The Way Back

5 07 2011

Long, grueling journeys requiring great endurance can make for great cinema.  Peter Weir, the director of the fantastic Best Picture nominated “Master & Commander,” does a great job portraying the struggle of man against a hostile environment in “The Way Back.”  However, following on the coattails of 2008’s “Defiance,” the Edward Zwick helmed film about survival in the Polish forests after World War II, the movie feels like it’s treading tired ground.

Sometimes movies are all about the timing, not just in regards to what’s on the screen but also in regards to when it comes on the screen.  “Defiance” took a genre that can be a really hard watch and made it a rewarding and meaningful in a way that I hadn’t seen in quite some time.  I didn’t judge “The Way Back” right out of the gate, but given that it too followed an eclectic group of people escaping a totalitarianist regime in the 1940s and fleeing into the forests, the comparison was inevitable.  In the end, they just feel too similar – and I only want to watch “Defiance” once.  Like a “Schindler’s List,” these movies show human beings dropped to sickening lows to survive.  While good ultimately triumphs, the journey there is so painful that I rarely want to relive it.

So perhaps if “The Way Back” was a 2007 release, I would respond much more positively to it.  Weir’s film is certainly not without its merits, however.  It boasts two very nice performances from Ed Harris and Saoirse Ronan, although Jim Sturgess and Colin Farrell just didn’t really do much for me.  The below-the-line elements are superb, including some captivating cinematography and marvelous makeup work that was very much deserving of the Oscar nomination that it received.

The script is also nicely done and captures the triumph of the human spirit and will over any obstacle.  However, Weir’s insistance on filming on such a grand scale hampers the movie, making it slower and more prolonged.  We end up feeling less because he wants to give us so much more.  “The Way Back” can’t be on an epic level with a movie like “Master & Commander” because it has to rejoice in the little moments of human strength and dignity that can be found trudging through the wilderness.  Given that the movie was based on a true story, I probably should have felt a lot happier that they triumphed, but dealing with such subject matter is difficult.  I’m not going to pretend like I could have done any better making the movie.  B / 


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