Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Way Back (2011)


OVERALL SCORE: 7.50/10

There are certain rules to the epic that have trickled along through most any film of worth. First, you save characterization until the end of a character. Whether it be through death or narrative completion, you allow the audience to guess on why characters act the way they do, with minor hints thrown in, and deliver only when it's time for them to step aside. The second is that while you can revisit, you never repeat. Even if the film is about monotony, you must find new ways of tackling the same subject. Put them on a shelf and only go back when you're in dire need of a plot point to move along.... or if your film is building up to something mentioned early on.

It is by those rules alone that The Way Back flounders about, struggling to elevate beyond 'just good.' From Truman Show to Master and Command to Gallipoli, Peter Weir is a proven pictorial master of the camera. He can craft prolific shots, wrap them around mesmerizing scores (as long as they're not techno), and integrate even the most rascally of scripts. So I find myself a bit troubled by his latest outing in The Way Back.

The film tells the tale of a group of political prisoners, during the Soviet Union's occupation of Poland, escaping their imprisonment in Siberia, trekking all the way South through USSR territory, and into China before eventually escaping Communist land upon reaching India. Wide in scope, wondrous in imagery, and captivating in premise, The Way Back drinks up all that can be had of the long standing tales of men versus nature. And it is in that aspect that the film seems unsure of what to do.

Water is the constant driving force of the men. From the backwoods of Russia to the deserts of China, much of The Way Back is centered around the consistent lack of water. Remember the rule on repetition I mentioned earlier? This is where The Way Back struggles. Finding water then losing water and then finding it again and losing it, this point is hammered home beyond description throughout the narrative. To keep this sentiment from feeling too draggy, Weir finds solace in the characters.

Some coming, some going, Weir keeps a consistent stream of new faces and new tales to tell. Mark Strong takes the force for the opening setup. Collin Farrell becomes the colorful criminal through the early to late middle. Saoirse Ronan then steps up to nail in the final few character arcs before the main crew are finally established enough to take it the rest of the way. This setup works sublimely because it helps keep you constantly guessing about the backgrounds of our characters, only offering tiny nibbles as they brave harsh landscapes.

That's where Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, and lesser known actors Dragos Bucur and Gustaf Skarsgård become crucial to the film. Sturgess is more than capable of handling the film, but as the movie goes on the requests for his acting chops to be at a premium seem to reside. Harris is more than charismatic enough to carry the role, but his performance feels hollow in the best of times. Bucur and Skarsgård have the talent, but spend much of the first half of the film being just faces among the crowd.

In essence that very fact becomes the crucial misstep in Weir's The Way Back. For all the imagery, beauty, and intense moments of human struggle, the setup just isn't there. The movie rushes everything. "Oh these are my friends. Look snow. Look mineshaft. Now we're running in the forest. Now we have no water in the forest. Have water, oh hi girl. Damn you mosquitoes. Look desert, wait where did the water go? Oh look water, wait... why are you dying? We ran out of water? When? Wahoo India!"

Now I apologize for that horrid generalization of the film, but that's a bit of how the movie plays out. If it weren't for the talented cast and situational intensity, the movie would be a total misstep. Luckily enough for the viewer those things are there, and the high intensity pace keeps drama constantly flowing. Weir just does enough to create an emotional connection with the characters at just the right time, but it's a few shots short of greatness.

Film Credits:
Directed By: Peter Weir
Written By: Peter Weir & Keith R. Clarke
Novel By: Slavomir Rawicz

4 better thoughts:

Castor said...

Heard some good things about it and these kind of survival/journey movies are usually my cup of tea. I wasn't planning on seeing it in theaters but the car is overdue for an oil change ahha, maybe I will drop by the movie theater while waiting.

Rachel [ f.g.i. ] said...

I've heard mixed reviews on this. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts. I do want to see it, but I may wait until it's available for rental.

Thanks

CMrok93 said...

I liked this because of the great visuals it showed, and the effective performances from these stars. The only problem was that this wasn't a very effective piece of work, which it could have definitely been. Good Review!

Univarn said...

@Castor I would say if you're going to watch it, do it in the theater because it'll really play up the sweeping landscape. However, don't run out to see it. If you've got the time and spare cash, it's a good viewing.

@Rachel Thanks for the comment. It is a rather mixed film. The good about it is enough to save it, but the bad is far too ever present.

@CMRok Fully agree and thanks :)

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