by Paul Deeter
In June of 1986 the single "Rise" was released by John Lydon's current band PiL or Public Image Limited. This single introduced his fifth album with PiL years after his most recognized role as the lead singer known as "Johnny Rotten" in the Sex Pistols. In Lydon's first single as a fresh experimental rock band that would completely upend the style of the Pistols, he sings wild-eyed and enthusiastically about the apartheid struggle in South Africa. You're already probably asking what this has anything to do with a 2020 basketball movie, and that's fair. However, the one repeated end line to this track resonates most with me when thinking about the journey of our protagonist in this film. Lydon jerks about and rants at us the line "anger is an energy" perhaps one of my favorite lyrics from any track from the 80s. Anger is an energy could mean a multitude of things, but to me and in the sense of how the song represents it, I believe anger can be a positive energy. It fueled Lydon's response to political torment and his message to rise up. And while the film The Way Back doesn't knock down any walls or spread any political messages, it believes in the power of anger.
In The Way Back, we get a visual introduction to our lead Jack, through a montage of four locations. He starts his day at work in a general worksite construction position, and then he drives to a bar, watches the sports on their TV and goes home to shower before another day. Naturally we expect Jack to have a beer or something of the sort at the bar, but the film paints a sadder picture than this, with Jack filling a fountain drink cup with beer, and even having a beer in the shower. Not to knock a shower beer, but seeing him casually drinking and driving home along with these other two settings gives the audience the understanding that Jack has a problem. Not only does Jack have a problem, but he’s pushing away the support system that would be able to assist him. He shows up to a Thanksgiving meal with family who appreciate his attendance but also worry for his safety. It’s intentional that the kids and younger cousins look up to him because they don’t see his time spent alone as a red flag, he’s “the cool uncle”. So with these visual puzzle pieces, the movie sets us up for inevitable surprise, by learning just who Jack is, or in his case, maybe who he was.
There is a quiet energy behind Jack, something that he can barely hide in even his quiet conversations, or behind the laughs he tries to stir up at the bar to avoid talking about anything truly personal. Just the level of his energy is noticeably, like an itch he can't scratch or an underlying loneliness, and it might be both. As the movie progresses, through its moments of Jack exploring his own desires and goals that we understand what the energy is: anger. Before we dive deep into Jack's psyche we have to familiarize ourselves with what his character has been through, and what he has to look forward to in the film. Jack is a washed up, (and who knows why?) ex-pro basketball player from high school Bishop Hayes, where he left his legacy in the dust. About twenty years past to the day, he was looking at a full-ride to the school of his choosing, all off his merits as a player. The movie explains his past and the tragedies that befell him in due time, and I won't spoil that. This review is an encouragement to see a movie you may have missed.
Jack ends up getting a call from the school he left and probably had not thought of in years, an invitation to coach for a team he once starred on. Jack is not convinced he can or holds the interest in doing so, but for the sake of the film, agrees last minute to take on the burden. I say burden intentionally, because the team is suffering for many reasons, but not all entirely due to lack of talent. It's a small team, less than the average high-school team size without much seats to bench. It's also a team that has been coached mostly by a modest but inexperienced math teacher. So when Jack comes in, the team is shooting three's they can't sink, dancing giddily before losing games and overall making jokes of themselves. He's angry, even before he's passionate about the team, and its not clear where his anger lies just yet. As the film progresses though, his anger gravitates in favor of the team, his understanding of the young players and there own insecurities as similar to his own, once. He's not angry at them, he's angry with them.
Now this all may seem kind of cliché, and it certainly balances on a fine line. This is a sports movie and it doesn't hide that, from its images of the team's scores changing as they become better and the moments of touching sincerity between the coach and his players. However it pushes this familiar narrative forward with the energy it alludes to, that exists when a man suffers great pain and has hidden that with alcoholism most his life. There's a vastly different anger between the team and the coach, but they can share the feeling nonetheless. And there's an unspoken since of privilege here too, which I'll briefly touch on. While this movie doesn't explore this too deeply, there's a sense of Jack's opportunities being easier for him than the rest of this diverse team. Some of them are black, most are under the poverty line, and Jack exists as this product of a better age for the team and for the school in general. He came from a different era, and while these kids are constantly fighting for their shot, Jack threw away his. The kids know that and so do we, the audience. But the kids don't know why, and that's what makes their bond even more unique. Jack tells them to be angry, he tells them to play angry. Play with a chip on their shoulder. And while the other coaches seem put off and also offended by Jack's cursing and angry outbursts at referees, they understand that energy, and they work with it.
The movie moves at this momentum briskly for it's 100 or so minutes. Like I said I won't go into any spoiler territory, but we get Jack's lowest low as expected and are in the sidelines rooting for Bishop Hayes in their journey to success. We peel back the layer of abandonment and loss Jack has suffered. We receive a moment all too similar to Bruce Banner's in the original The Avengers film, when Cap asks him his secret to controlling his anger. As Bruce says, "I'm always angry." Jack says something to the same effect when asked how he copes with life, and its fascinating in how positive it seems.