The Way Back | Movie review
Ben Kenigsberg reviews Peter Weir’s The Way Back.
One problem with making movies out of real-life survival tales is a lack of suspense about how they’ll turn out, but the ordeal in The Way Back is so extreme and well-related that the film acquires an uncommon urgency. Escaping from a gulag in 1941 Siberia, a ragtag crew that includes a Polish POW (Sturgess), an exiled American (Harris), a Stalinist thief (Farrell) and—later on—a runaway of uncertain nationality (Ronan) wanders south. They weather the frigid cold of the forest and trudge down a mosquito-infested lakeshore. They evade communist sympathizers in China and attempt to cross a desert. They have no food of their own and few tools. And at least some of them, the opening titles tell us, will reach India.
The vastness of such a journey is almost incomprehensible, but a leisurely running time allows Weir to conjure an overpowering sense of camaraderie amid futility. With the help of his Master and Commander cinematographer, Russell Boyd, he brings a sharp eye to the details of ice-floe crossings and snake hunts. By the time the cast is in the sands, the protracted hike has taken on a surreal quality; at times The Way Back suggests a narrative version of Gus Van Sant’s wandering parable, Gerry. The cast is uniformly fine (and Sturgess is impressively un-Sturgessian). Only a labored setup keeps this from the ranks of the great adventure films.