The Way Back/2011
Directed by: Peter Weir
Starring: Colin Farrell, Ed Harris, Saoirse Ronan, Mark Strong, Jim Sturgess
The Plot: A ragtag group of enemies of the state escape a Russian gulag only to find themselves in the unforgiving Siberian wilderness. The year is 1939. The escape will take another three years and 4,000 miles to complete.
The Good: Peter Weir’s back. After an eight year Summer vacation the talented Australian director is finally making movies again. It’s hard to say why he chose a gulag escape flick for his prodigal son – but he did. And for all intents and purposes we do have another Peter Weir movie to add to the Internet Movie Database after Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli, Witness, Dead Poet’s Society, The Truman Show and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.
The Way Back is a movie about fuel. What a human being would need to keep going for 4,000 miles of Mother Nature on her topographical period.
Water. Food. Air. Companionship. As a film experience it feels very much like driving a car 200 miles from anywhere with the gas light winking at you from the dark recesses of the instrument panel.
This is a tough call for me to make when trying to write a review for this new Peter Weir film. The Way Back is a good movie – it’s just not a very good Peter Weir movie. And it certainly doesn’t honor the material it was culled from.
As always the director allows the movie to find itself. He lets the events of this epic trek across frozen forests, harsh wastelands, and inhospitable mountain ranges play out at their own pace – find their own speed and rhythm. Our group of convicts fight hungry wolves for meat, suffer a plague of mosquitoes not seen since Moses left Egypt those many long years ago, (I connected with this moment in the film – I once ran into a nasty swarm of mosquitoes for three miserable days in the Deception lakes area of Washington state; if I had a gun, I would have blown my brains out… mosquitoes SUCK) dodge Communist sympathizers, cross hell’s frying pan, and scale the formidable Himalayan mountains in the dead heart of winter. This story is a built-in movie begging to be made – and made by a filmmaker of the highest order.
So why didn’t it work?
The Bad: I’m not going to blame Colin Farrell. Farrell – whose character Valka is a member of the notorious Russian thieves guild; knuckle tattoos and all – is the best thing trudging through The Way Back. His character’s sharp – as is his knife “The Wolf.” Valka’s funny. He’s menacing. He’s the first to get in there with the wolves and fight over a gory pile of carrion. We never really know if he’s going to kill, steal, or help along the journey out of Russia. When the seven men come across a lone girl who’s also running away from the atrocities of German/Russian occupied Poland, (Saoirse Ronan – shorty can act) we wonder if Farrell’s Russian cut-throat might try to do something unsavory toward this vulnerable creature….
But Weir never really does anything with his cast of characters other than keep them moving South, toward salvation, freedom, and India. I can understand if he wanted to keep his version of these events as close to honest as he could. If anything to lionize the brave souls who survived this incredible journey against all odds. But this is also a movie Pete. We need some drama and probably don’t care if you need to fudge the facts a bit to cram it in there somehow.
The Way Back starts off with some pretty strong adult content. Farrell kills another prisoner – pretty much guts him – for his coat so he can pay back some gambling debts. The thieves guild deal in hand drawn pornography sketched in livid detail by another prospective escapee. There’s even a few Russian f-bombs dropped in subtitles. I’m thinking The Way Back might be one seriously hard-assed PG-13 film – sort of like Master and Commander was.
But when the escape happens, and these seven guys head out into the vast, freezing, nothingness of Siberia… nothing much happens at all after that. Except for maybe the vast, freezing, nothingness of Siberia.
These are escaped prisoners of the Communist war machine – some of them are even lifelong members of the Russian thieves guild – we can’t find a single way to stir up the punch a little bit? Add a little tequila? Pour in some gasoline? Toss in a match maybe?
Then Saoirse Ronan’s blue-eyed Polish girl enters the picture…
And nothing much happens AGAIN.
Am I all alone in thinking that a sixteen year old Polish girl couldn’t enter into company with seven escaped war criminals – some of whom used to trade jerk-off cartoons for cigarettes – and there wouldn’t be any… I don’t know… SEXUAL TENSION in the group? Most of these guys haven’t seen a woman in years. Why are they suddenly treating this one like she’s Pollyanna?
I’m not condoning gross misconduct with a minor by saying this – I’m just pointing out the blaring missed-opportunity to add something a bit more provocative and meaty to the narrative. Something suspenseful. Something – other than food – that might set these men against each other.
But it’s all about food. Like I said near the top of this movie review – The Way Back is a movie about fuel. Food. Water. The absolute basic requirements a human being would need to walk 4,000 miles through the elements. It’s a film about eating snake meat and drinking mud to quench a terminal thirst.
If this is the film Peter Weir was attempting making then it’s a grand success. The Way Back is a hungry movie. It’s a thirsty movie. It’s an exhausted movie. You’ll feel like it should be giving you more in the way of nourishment and nutrition – but there’s nothing here to give. So you’ll go hungry as well.
The Ugly: The start of this movie is an edited mess. It’s easy to understand that a film that will attempt to cross 4,000 miles of Siberian wilderness, the Gobi desert, and the Himalayan mountain range on its way to India might find itself in desperate need to trim off some fat during the editing process. Most of what got clipped during this movie were the moments in the Soviet gulag during the opening minutes. Which also happened to be the really interactive, lurid, complex moments of the flick.
Did you know that Mark Strong is in this film? Just barely. He’s part of the opening act. An act where characters come and go and die and join in the escape attempt. We’ll never know why. Thanks to some thrifty editing choices these character’s origins, as are their motivations, get completely lost in the chopped up framework. They’re interchangeable pawns – that’s all.
Weir kind of flubs that part as well. The opening of the movie tells us that in 1942 three men walked out of the Himalayas into British occupied India after traversing 4,000 miles of unforgiving wilderness. (how many times must I write “4,000 miles of wilderness…?”) And in the end they do. Instead of using this moment to fill us in on the details of these survivors and what they may, or may not have, done with the rest of their lives… we’re treated to the entire history of occupied Poland...?!
I don’t want to sound insensitive. But I will. At this point in the movie, after watching these guys wander, starve, swell from thirst, and bury their skeletal dead for the last 120 minutes… I don’t give a bright, Irish shite about Poland.
The Verdict: The Way Back is a forgettable film made out of an unforgettable story by an unforgettable filmmaker using the very best acting talent money can buy. Which makes it the very definition of missed opportunity.
It’s a grueling movie – almost to the point that I would categorize the flick as Dehydration Porn. And maybe it is.