The Way Back
I usually tend to avoid reading reviews of films before I write my own. So I feel like I have to say up front that I’ve being stewing all day over what Manohla Dargis had to say about Peter Weir’s newest film, The Way Back. And it has most likely influenced at least part of my opinion of the movie. The film is very loosely based on a book who’s authenticity is the subject of much debate by the name of The Long Walk, by Slawomir Rawicz (read about it here). It’s about six men who escape from a Russian gulag in Siberia during World War II. Supposedly, the group of men walked 4,000 miles south, through Siberia, the Gobi Desert, Tibet, through the Himalayas, and finally into India. Whether or not the events told in the book are true never seemed to be of concern to Weir, who said in an interview that it didn’t really matter since it’s a great story.
The group of men is led by Janusz (Jim Sturgess), a Pole. The film opens on an interrogation of Janusz by a Soviet officer, which ends when Janusz’s wife, who’s been tortured, signs something admitting her husband is an enemy of the Union. He’s then transferred to the prison in the middle of Russia’s expanse, where he’s told in an ominous fashion that nature is the real prison, and there’s no hope of escape from the five million square miles that makes of that territory.
These first scenes in the prison are well-crafted. There’s an interesting contrast between the claustrophobia inside the prison, among the prisoners packed into small barracks, huddling around anything warm, and the vast wilderness that provides nothing but space. And although you’d think it would do the opposite, that same wilderness actually made me feel more trapped than the prison guards and the barbed wire fences did. This is a very strong beginning to a film that ends up losing its way every now and then in the second and third acts.
Janusz meets an assortment of interesting characters while in the gulag. The first being Khabarov, played by Mark Strong, a man who puts the idea of escape into Janusz’s head, with no real plans of seeing it through. But eventually, serious companions in the venture appear. The most prominent being an American named Mr. Smith, played by Ed Harris. Three of the group are more or less peripheral characters. The final member being Valka (Colin Farrell), a hardened Russian gangster who’s greatest friend is a knife named Wolf. Farrell’s presence in the film is strikingly out of place. Not to say he’s not a fine actor when he wants to be, but among this cast, he certainly seems ill-matched. Not to mention his character Valka lacks any real development, and despite being funny at times, there’s nothing there beyond what you’d expect of an imprisoned Russian gangster character.
After the daring escape during a frightful blizzard, the movie is basically about these men walking through extreme conditions, alternating between cold climates where food is scarce, to hot climates where food is scarce. And there’s never enough water. Weir’s pacing is always thoughtful, and to be honest, I found the film gripping for the most part. And we’ve seen proof that films about people walking around can be enchanting, such as Gus van Sant’s Gerry, and more recently, Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff.
The film loses it’s focus, or at least it’s restrained dynamic when a young girl named Irena joins the crew on the trip. Played by Saoirse Ronan with a bit of that shimmering talent we saw in Atonement (and haven’t really seen since then). She’s like a cool drink of water for the weary men, becoming some sort of savior, or saving grace, particularly for Mr. Smith. The religious imagery associate with her character was too overt for my tastes, including washing Mr. Smith’s bleeding feed, wearing what could be construed as a crown of thorns, and even carrying around a cross-like contraption meant to shield her from the sun. Maybe I’m reading too much into these things, but they seemed intentionally obvious to me.
In such an extreme tale of desperate men versus the wild, the PG-13 rating The Way Back pulled is a bit of a surprise. And I’ll admit that I was at the very least interested at what Weir chose to show on-screen, and what he didn’t. And here’s where Ms. Dargis’s review comes into play. She discusses the historical responsibility that Weir took upon himself when choosing to tell this particularly story. Is the way that he glossed over the severe parts of the story irresponsible? Did he make the film look too beautiful, reducing the efficacy of such an impressive tale? While originally, I left the theatre feeling pretty good about the movie, I have to say, I agree with Dargis’s insight. Weir did have a responsibility to make the film something more than what it finally ended up as. Here is what she said to convince me:
By staking a claim on the historical record, Mr. Weir needlessly burdens his story, investing it with an expectation of brute truth that this overly temperate film doesn’t want to meet. Certainly if this were framed as fiction, it might be easier to buy Mr. Farrell as a Russian gangster, or forgive the crudely obvious commercial rationale of his casting. On the other hand, there is nothing to be done with the gentle adolescent girl (Saoirse Ronan) who joins the travelers and remains so miraculously unbothered by this band of brothers that she transforms into their patron saint. What happens to her and the rest is, of course, touching. It’s impossible not to cry at their suffering, but whether you’ll feel anything is another story.