One of 2010's most memorable moments in film is undoubtedly the arm severing scene in 127 Hours In that film a young man wages war with himself regarding the limits of what he will do to survive. Peter Weir's The Way Back doesn't have a comparable hard-to-watch-yet-impossible-to-look-away scene to latch onto, but it's a similar story taken to epic extremes. 127 Hours had one man battling nature; The Way Back follows a group of people attempting to navigate on foot the thousands of miles that will give them freedom.
The Way Back delivers a beautiful to look at and slightly suspenseful blending of multiple genres as the story unfolds. Early moments are a prison film, then there is an escape film bubbling up and finally a survival picture moves to the forefront for the duration. Produced by National Geographic, magnificent scenery and vistas abound as the men walk toward their safety or their deaths.
Weir attempts to capture some of the widescreen glory of director David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago) in The Way Back and the results are mixed. The Way Back is visually a wonderful looking picture that pulls the viewer in due to its amazing story, but unfortunately never quite finds a connection between characters and the suspense of their journey.
The late 30s in Eastern Europe was a dangerous place to be. If it wasn't Adolf Hitler's troops overrunning your borders and killing chunks of your population, it was Joseph Stalin's purges for the "enemies of the state." A secret tip-off by a neighbor to curry political favor or a torture-aided betrayal by a loved one could get a person sent off to a Siberian gulag to suffer in the harshest conditions imaginable. With five million acres of inhospitable hinterlands to fence prisoners in, escape is more doomed folly of imagination rather than reality. Trying to run away will almost certainly get a prisoner killed by Soviet guards or brought down by the unforgiving Siberia that will starve or freeze an escapee to death.
Despite long odds against getting out of the gulag and of Siberia, desperate men will still attempt to flee to gain their freedom. One of the basest forms of human nature is survival and faced with the choice these men have, they decide they'd rather die in the wilderness than starve to death in the brutal prison camp. A small group of professional criminals and dissidents formulate a plan to make a break for it and soon they are running through the woods with little food, no weapons and no leader. Little do they know the depths of impending misery and distances they will cover to get away from the long and threatening arms that reach far outside Soviet borders.
Weir assembles a multinational cast with American (Ed Harris, Saoirse Ronan), Irish (Colin Farrell), English (Jim Sturgess) and Romanian (Dragos Bucur) actors who solidly tackle the variety of accents attempted. All of them throw themselves into their on-screen suffering. I can watch Harris in anything, so if he made a three-hour film about cleaning the gutters, I'm sure it would be riveting and he'd bring his trademark intensity regarding the subject of gutter work. To see him fighting off death in various forms of the wild was my favorite aspect of the cast. Farrell, who I'm less fond of, delivers a few dark laughs as a violent, heavily inked Russian criminal.
The leading character in The Way Back isn't actually an actor, but the terrain itself. No matter how threatening the Soviets are with their gulags and death squads, nature is a force just as unrelenting and deadly for unwelcome guests. As the men (and a straggling teenage girl who joins them) walk mile after mile, they get the full gamut of how the natural world can kill: snowstorms, freezing temperatures, rainstorms, desert heat, depravation of food and water. Their journey is one of cruelty and endurance.
Weir constantly moves amongst the physical and mental debilitations while never letting the audience forget just how breathtaking the landscape is that is killing these people.
The sheer size of the tale is captivating, yet makes it hard for Weir to navigate the story forward smoothly. This group walked thousands of miles across Russia, Mongolia, China, Tibet and India before they reached the end. The vastness of their expedition to freedom is so large it's nearly lost on the viewer as all these locations start to blend together. It seems that there's more effort to catalogue the diverse scenery and natural setting than it is to show the developing bonds and depth of character of each man. As they walk through these places, they become friends and their compassion grows as they keep each other alive, but too often these scenes are fragments that only get us to the next wave of challenges. Suspense takes a back seat to show us how dangerously pretty the world can be and the damage it can bring down on the human body.
The Way Back delivers as an epic travelogue filled with majestic mountains and empty desert scenery. Does it work as a suspense film with men fighting for their survival? Not as much. Weir tells us in the first minute that the bulk of the men make it out of their ordeal alive and that makes it hard to ratchet up the uncertainty. Despite having the backbone of a story with a miraculous 4,000-mile trek through these beautiful locations, The Way Back is surprisingly underwhelming on creating the tension needed to raise the movie above the nature first, characters second mindset.
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