"The Way Back" is a masterpiece, a must-see film for thinking people and for lovers of cinema as a serious art form. I was on the edge of my seat through the entire film, and was stifling tears. I could not resist applauding at the end. I couldn't wait to discuss it with friends. Several hours after I left the theater, I kept seeing everything – a meaty sandwich, clean water flowing from the tap – through the prism of "The Way Back." I'm a long-time fan of director Peter Weir, who gave us classics like "Picnic at Hanging Rock," "Witness" and "The Year of Living Dangerously." Weir has outdone himself.
"The Way Back" depicts a long walk that Gulag escapees took from Siberia to India. I've been lucky enough, under luckier circumstances, to travel some of the world the film references, from Poland to the Himalaya. The film's authenticity in language, costume, even hairstyles, swept me up into its world.
Both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia attacked Poland in September, 1939, thus beginning World War Two. At first, the Communists killed and deported more people even than the genocidal Nazis. Over a million Poles were deported in cattle cars. Many died; many never returned. No one knows exact numbers. Many struggled to return home, traveling on foot through Eurasia, making shorter treks comparable to that depicted in "The Way Back;" I've met such people.
Janusz (Jim Sturgess) is a young Pole falsely accused by Soviets. His wife is tortured to force a confession. Without ceremony, he is shipped to hellish Siberian concentration camps and mines. Janusz determines to escape, with a ragtag, multilingual crew of followers.
Janusz is not particularly handsome, or muscular, or super intelligent. He doesn't have a commanding voice or swagger. His potentially fatal flaw, in this environment, is kindness. Jim Sturgess' Janusz is one of the best aspects of the film. In real life, true leaders usually are not like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Janusz grew up in the woods, and knows how to jerry-rig a compass to point his group south, and a mask to survive blizzards. In the world of Gulag escapees, that's enough to make him the big man. Indeed, Valka, (Colin Farrell), a very tough gangster, declares, or diagnoses, that Janusz is the leader, the man whom the other escapees must obey, both for their own individual benefit and the benefit of group survival.
Prison escapees traveling thousands of miles of the Eurasian landmass with minimal gear face multiple dangers, from malnutrition-caused blindness to mosquitoes to snakes to dehydration. Some succumb, and die en route. You can't help but bet the same horrible game of chance that Valka proposes: who will die next? And will his meat be tender – that is, will we resort to cannibalism? A crew member falls. Surviving companions, in stunning testimony to their own humanity, take the time, burn the calories, devote the effort, to fashioning makeshift graves, and funerals. And then they march on.
What looks very beautiful on a calendar – an unspoiled mountain forest of snow-dusted evergreens – is actually all but an execution chamber for a hungry fugitive with no tools and only rags for shoes. The last thing a good man sees after making the simple mistake of walking too far with a limited light source will not be a breathtaking natural vista but a comforting, wrenching, hallucination of home.
Weir's best choice as a filmmaker here was simply to get out of the story's way. "The Way Back" does not want to be your best friend. Weir makes no attempt to cozy up to the viewer, to sweeten the story with phony warmth or touching crescendos. Weir makes no attempt to juice the action with cinematic steroids. For much of the film, the viewer is watching one grueling step after another.
Guess what? This is what it's like to suffer for a goal, this is what it's like to be crushed, this is what it's like, purely by chance – not because you are a better person or because God likes you more – to survive. You go on, hour after hour after seemingly pointless hour toward your questionable, impossible objective. This film is an endurance test. It will separate the men from the boys. Folks who think a movie about fantasy, sexy ballerinas is "great" filmmaking, and who think that temporarily losing their cell phone service is a human rights violation, will probably walk right out of "The Way Back." Characterizations come slowly and are not forced. We discover, in a ruined monastery, that one character had been a priest. We discover that a girl can get taciturn men to talk. Characters speak of food, as hungry people do. "Add more salt!" to a fantasy meal, one begs. Valka makes a decision that caused this viewer to cry. I never thought the film could make me care about this murderous thug, but it did. There is inevitable, and surprising, laughter, also not forced, but integral to the circumstances.
There are moments of high drama. The men must fight wolves. Weir could have lavished lengthy close-ups on those sharp teeth, snarling snouts and prickly pelts. He doesn't. The wolves are on screen only long enough to establish what they are and what they are up to. And then the next deadly and impossible challenge rolls down the shoot at the viewer, just as it did for those who took this long walk, and the millions of other humans like them, who have survived life and death challenges under impossible conditions. "The Way Back" is, like those poignant grave-markers the marchers make en route, testimony to those who have lived anonymous and agonizing lives in this pitiless world. If you don't think about the big questions while watching this film, and if you're not grateful to the film for that, you don't deserve it.
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