The Way Back
Directed by Peter Weir
Screenplay by Keith R. Clarke
Colin Farrell as Valka
Ed Harris as Mr. Smith
Jim Sturgess as Janusz
Running time: 133 minutes
Motion Picture Rating: Rated PG-13 for violent content, depiction of physical hardships, a nude image and brief strong language.
A Thousand Miles From Nowhere
A great movie seizes the attention instantly and holds it fast. Peter Weir is a fantastic director and has made a number of great movies, but The Way Back falls short of that distinction, despite all the effort and care that clearly went into it. Whether you are most fond of The Last Wave or Gallipoli, Dead Poets Society or The Truman Show, Witness or The Year Of Living Dangerously,** you may be coming to the table with any number of high expectations. Despite the movie’s epic scale, it delivers surprisingly little in the way of adventure. In the absence of any real antagonist – many are implied, yet none really materialize – there is but little room for tension or payoff in the course of the story. If what you want is startlingly beautiful scenery, and lots of it, you will probably consider The Way Back worth the ride. If you want bold insights into the extremes of human endurance, you are bound to feel a bit swindled.
** …for the record, I have always been a Picnic At Hanging Rock man.
The film begins by introducing a group of political prisoners in the frozen hell of a Siberian gulag. Forced to work or die for the good of Stalin’s Russian state, they naturally begin to entertain notions of escape. In the opening scenes, we find out that the inmates are from all nationalities and walks of life. Those with the strength and wits to survive develop resourceful habits, such as marketable skills and clever ways of stockpiling extra food. The actual development of the escape plan, as well as the selection of who goes and who stays, is all rather hastily and clumsily told. Ultimately, we are to understand that the ones with any measure of brains and courage hit the road together, in a daring jailbreak under cover of a blinding snowstorm.
For purposes of pacing, it would have been better to begin the film with the jailbreak. The preceding scenes, in which the inmates prepare to escape, move at a pace that suggests the director wants to get them out of the way quickly and move on to the journey. So why include them at all? Two minutes would have sufficed to demonstrate how awful life is in the gulag. March the prisoners through the snow a little, send them down the mine, watch two or three freeze to death, one lose his mind, and you’re done. Once the film gets going in earnest, it is plain that all the disjointed prison camp camaraderie added nothing.
The characters are ostensibly diverse, but there is little in practical terms to distinguish one from the other. None of them seems to possess useful skills that the others lack, with one exception. Janusz (Jim Stugess), a Polish soldier, is made leader because he can tell directions from the sun. Knife-toting Russian thug Valka (Colin Farrell) promises loose-cannon menace and fails to deliver any. Ed Harris, an actor who effortlessly improves any film – except maybe Appaloosa – is given almost nothing to work with here. His character is a gloomy old guy, who admits as much about himself. Saoirse Ronan, the cute little Irish gal from Atonement and The Lovely Bones, also throws her lot in with the escaping prisoners, but everything continues about as amiably (or not) with or without her in the party.
If Weir had cut all but, say, ten percent of the dialogue from this film, it really might have helped. Weak dialogue trips this film up every few minutes. Near the beginning, when the escaped prisoners are running for their lives in a blizzard, one character actually shouts out, “We can’t see anything! The snow is blinding us!” Ah. That’s why they’ve been running into so many trees.
Leaving aside all the questionable Russian accents (neither the best nor the worst perpetrated by an English-speaking cast), consistently on-the-nose dialogue imposes a kind of forced earnestness on everything these people say, which is usually some misty-eyed recollection of how their sad lives became sadder when Stalin had them arrested. It also makes their scattered attempts at levity fall completely flat. The really good character work – and make no mistake, this is a good cast – happens when the actors are not speaking. The desperation of these wanderers does occasionally shine through in the sidelong distrustful glance, the wistful gaze at unending wilderness, and the ravenous pursuit of small edible animals. One of the best minutes of the movie is when the party chase a pack of wolves off a carcass, only to fight over the kill like bloodthirsty animals themselves.
Notice also that the characters revert to English mere minutes after the film begins in Russian. Of course that is a common convention in films about other countries, but making the Poles speak Polish and the Russians speak Russian throughout would have been a bolder and stronger choice. As the film’s one American character (Ed Harris) can speak fluent Russian, it is rather annoying that they should choose English as their common language.
This film gets better and better as it goes along. However, it runs over two hours, and once the story really starts to get gripping, it has already been kind of boring for quite some time. The uneven pace leaves the audience guessing, right along with the characters, whether or not this journey will end. That may sound like a good thing, but it is not.
The actors do sell their physical suffering convincingly. Particularly in the Gobi desert sequences, the overwhelming assaults of thirst, fatigue, and despair are palpable. Each character bears the scars of the journey thanks to skillful physical acting and some first-rate makeup. Before long, every one of them looks like pure hell, as they should. Who remembers Cold Mountain, in which Nicole Kidman starved and suffered many a day and somehow retained her pristine elegance through it all? One thing Peter Weir understands is the decay – emotional, physical, psychological – that humans can and will suffer under great stress. I must also add that those who die in this film do so rather beautifully.
The greatest appeal of The Way Back is its scale and diversity of setting. The vast landscapes of Russia, Mongolia, and Tibet are nothing short of stunning. The intimidating beauty of the film’s latter half is a reminder of the grand work that director Weir brought us in decades past. Even Master and Commander, definitely one of his breezier efforts, was a damned fine looking film. As members of the party begin dying – and consequently stop talking – we are allowed more time to meditate on the astounding terrain that stretches seemingly without end before the survivors. That part is great.
The film gains so much ground late in the game that it is all the greater shame to see it all thrown away in an instant. I was all set to forgive this film its subpar script and stumbling pace on the strength of its many subtle virtues. However, the ending is categorically lame. I apologize. I am not advising anyone to pass on this film. In fact, if you think you would like to see it, go ahead and see it on a big screen while you can. Just don’t expect The Way Back to be all that it could have been. Because it is not.