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The Way Back (2010) ***

January 20, 2011


written by: Peter Weir & Keith Clarke
produced by: Peter Weir, Joni Levin, Duncan Henderson, Nigel Sinclair, Scott Rudin & Sharan Kapoor
directed by: Peter Weir
rated PG-13 (for violent content, depiction of physical hardships, a nude image and brief strong language)
133 min.
U.S. release date: December 29, 2010 & January 21, 2011 (limited
Each time Australian writer/director Peter Weir makes a film, I’ve made every effort to see it and have never been disappointed. From “Witness” and “Dead Poet’s Society” to “Fearless” and “The Truman Show“, the six-time Oscar nominee has had his hand at a variety of genres, yet all his films have a common thread: they took a look at who people are, what drives them and what they’re capable of; good or bad. His first film in seven years, “The Way Back”, a compelling survival story, is no different. Here is an intense true-life tale that examines  the physical and moral limits of endurance amid impossible odds. It is at times unpleasant to watch yet undoubtedly inspiring.
The film starts out in sub-zero Siberia at the start of WWII, where Polish solider Janusz (Jim Sturgess) is captured by Soviets after being accused of sabotage and espionage. He denies such charges and is thrown inside a brutal gulag surrounded by an unforgiving frozen wasteland. Forced into either cutting down trees in the harsh cold or suffering the confines of poisonous gold mines, he is told that it is not starvation or humiliation that will end him, but rather the debilitating environment. When a persuasive prisoner (a shifty Mark Strong), who winds up being all talk plants seeds of escape, Janusz takes the talk seriously and soon he and six others boldly follow through with a daring escape.

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Janusz’s shear determination and confidence make him the default leader of an assorted group of tortured souls that embark on what will be a 4000 mile trek to freedom. There’s the cautious American, Mr. Smith (the always great Ed Harris), who proves to be an invaluable support to the men and the unpredictable Russian criminal Valka (Colin Farrell, taking another good role that distances himself from heart-throb), who proudly displays a tattooed Stalin on his chest.  Accompanying them is a seventeen year-old, Kazik (Sebastian Urzendowsky) who suffers from night blindness, Voss (Gustaf Skarsgard), a compassionate Latvian priest, an artist named Tamasz (Alexandru Potocean), and Zoran (Dragos Bucur) a humorous accountant. We know from previous survival films that some of these men will die. Weir even tells us in historical texts at the beginning of the film that only three men make it to India.
As they journey south, the men must be cautious of predatory animals and stay away from villages for fear of being reported. This forces them to endure all kinds of difficult climates and terrain, from challenging Himalayan mountains to the barren Gobi dessert. To get through it all, they must pool their resources, trust each other, and cling to their desire for freedom.  On their way to Lake Baikal, they pick up a determined and outgoing young Polish girl (Saoirse Ronan), who helps these men get to know each other better. Persevering through dehydration, swollen and blistered feet, and extreme exhaustion, the group continues forward as death’s door looms like an inescapable shadow. They talk about what kind of life they will have when they finally get home, knowing full well that the next aching step could be their last.  


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Based on a memoir, The Long Walk, from actual survivor Slavomir Rawicz, which was ghost-written by Ronald Downing from conversations he had with Rawicz, this trek is inarguably harrowing to watch. Regardless, I found myself gravitating to these stories. It’s always fascinating to see what happens when total strangers are thrust together in dire circumstances. There are certain formulas for a film about a small group of survivors that you can anticipate, like who will be the one to slow them down,  talk of cannibalism, and who will prove to be the most resourceful.
You get all that here, but where a director like Edward Zwick (“Defiance”) might take more time on characterization, Weir focuses rather on the arduous sojourn and the natural elements that wear down the group, leaving viewers to feel their thirst and hunger. This may be a slight disappointment for viewers who want a stronger emotional connection to these characters, but Weir is focused moreso on what they are experiencing rather than what they are feeling. We still feel for them, even if you don’t know their entire back story. We still get to know these characters, but the focus is always moving forward and what lies ahead.
The film’s score is appropriately minimal; leaving us with howling wind, blistering sun, and quiet moments of silent exhaustion. Thankfully, there’s not a whole lot of swelling orchestrations to get us to feel a certain way. Another element different from similar escapee films is the absence of a pursuit. There are no authorities or antagonists chasing after the prisoners, which is a welcome change. Who knows if the Soviets even bothered to search for their inmates, probably thinking nature will kill them. This choice is fine, since what they experience is intense enough. Weir makes the right choice by fixating the film’s length on the unimaginable challenge of walking from Siberia to India. It’s not a groundbreaking cinematic achievement but it’s hard to complain that a story like this is lacking when it is based on true events.   

Taking in two hours of men suffering is not a draw for everyone. For those who solely seek out film for entertainment, then you haven’t yet allowed yourself to evolve as a moviegoer and let out what is already inside you. This is the kind of film that will ask you to think what you would do and expose a part of history you likely knew little of.  I’m drawn to these seldom heard stories that take place around well-known historical events, they always intrigue me. They serve as a reminder that humans are indeed animals and have the propensity to turn into something quite feral when they are physically depleted and emotionally drained. There’s the will to fight and move on, but for how long? At what point do you just let go, give in, and wait for the end?

WAY BACK Still 3
The performances here range from expected to impressive and although they are kind of broad, the thick accents seem authentic and the weariness, starvation and isolation doesn’t ever seem forced. As the gateway to the story, Sturgess strikes the right fear, anger and determination to convey somewhat you’d want to follow. At the start of the film, we see him extend kindness to an older prisoner seeking food, to which Mr. Smth informs him that kindness is what will get him killed in the gulag. Ironically, it is Janusz’s kindness that compels Smith to join the group, thinking that out in the open, he would eventually need the benefits of such a characteristic. It becomes yet another aspect of the story that I appreciated. Seeing the struggle of maintaining civility and generosity in group-preservation with the desire to personally persevere while others may be dying around you, provides for some heavy ethical and moral contemplation.
Weir has proven his talent for inhabiting challenging landscapes in the past, so it’s no surprise that he would be passionate about such a story. From the dangerous outback vistas of  “Gallipoli”,  to the dense Central American jungle of “The Mosquito Coast“, he has a knack for personifying the land he takes us to. The unforgiving Siberian cold and the relentless Mongolian desert, come across as a real threat even during the times it feels like an alien world. 
At times, the environment almost becomes a character all its own, as the men (and girl) achingly make their way through each developed environment. In doing so, Weir allows us to feel as they might have. The actors effectively convey a weary mania (not the delirium we often see) that comes with starvation and isolation. The physical transformations alone are quite striking here, as we’re shown tattered skin, rotted teeth, and some appearing near-skeletal. Sure, it’s kind of “old hat” to see these “triumph-of-the human-spirit” type movies, but at least this film isn’t making a big deal of itself. Weir takes you with these people, shows you their chilling transformation, and we watch as they wither away.
The Way Back” won’t get any nominations and because it has a limited release at the tail end of one year and the beginning of another, it’s likely that this will be missed altogether. But if you’re like me and you heard that a new Peter Weir film was coming out, then you will find it. When you do finally see it, your reward will be seeing a film that will leave you with an appreciation for sacrifice and resolve, sold through a patient observance of survival. It’s a patient film that builds in its grim observation of survival and proves to be both an engaging and gut-wrenching journey for the audience.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. mATtHEw gRAmItH permalink
    January 24, 2011 1:57 pm

    Sounds like something I should see! I’ve been watching Peter Weir films for a long time. “The Truman Show” easily ranks among my favorite Hollywood films, and I also think that “The Mosquito Coast”, and “Fearless” are great. I was once fortunate enough to see “Picnic at Hanging Rock” in a theatre (The Brattle in Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA. Great old rear projection theatre), and am so glad I did. It’s a beautiful 70’s art film that is best watched without all the distractions of home. I do wonder, in this age where so many of us watch more movies in our home than in the theatre, if movies that take a long time to unfold and are more atmosphere driven than story driven will go the way of the dodo? With few exceptions they mostly already have.


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