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STUDIO: Image Entertainment
RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes
• Behind the Scenes Featurette
How far would you walk to escape a Soviet Gulag? If you answered 4000 miles, you’re a winner! And alive!
Starring Jim Burgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Saiorse Ronan, Mark Strong
Written by Peter Weir and Keith R. Clarke, based on a book by Slavomir Rawicz
Directed by Peter Weir
When Janusz (Sturgess) gets tossed into a Soviet gulag out in the middle of Siberia, he strikes up a bond with Mr. Smith (Harris) who warns him off about Khabarov (Strong), a man who claims to know a way of escaping. Janusz, facing a 20 year sentence in this hell-hole, decides he’s going to make a run for it, heading south to Lake Baikal and then across the border into Mongolia, away from Soviet rule. With a ragtag group of prisoners from different countries, incarcerated for different reasons, Janusz embarks on a trek that tests the limits of human endurance, all for a chance at freedom.
“Wait, wait, wait. You actually saw Ondine? You’re not shitting me? You didn’t just see the cover on Netflix Instant, but you actually physically watched it? I love you.”
Typically, movies these days that get sold with the whole “based on a true story” moniker go to cheap horror flicks to up their frightening ante. When you’re watching creepy events on screen in low-light, it helps to have that notion deep in the back of your head convincing you that this could happen to you since it (sorta) happened to someone else. It was the most effective over a decade ago when The Blair Witch Project convinced people that, not only was this based on real events, we were watching the actual, live footage from that actual event. It wasn’t even a re-enactment. Naturally, filmgoers have gotten savvier since then, yet it still seems to pack an advertising punch.
However, when you see “inspired by real events” with a Peter Weir film, you’re not expecting it to be a smoke-and-mirrors gimmick. And sadly, that’s exactly what this is. To be fair, it was only after I had finished watching the film and was curious about the background that I did some investigating, so the whole charade had me convinced throughout the duration of the run time. Normally this wouldn’t be such a big issue for me if the movie itself was solid – which this is on many levels – but, when it’s something so emotionally taxing about an event so apocalyptic and well recorded as World War II, it’s a bit deflating to later read that the “true” account of this 4,000-plus-mile trek from Siberia to India was debunked back in 2006. With so many harrowing true stories out there during this time period, it feels hollow to pass this off as something that actually happened yet didn’t.
Yeah, but it looks like it’s for sure going badly for you. I win.
The reason I felt so betrayed was that I was thoroughly invested in these characters throughout the film. We wanted them to survive this seemingly impossible journey through some of the most oppressive terrain in the world. I mean, seriously, the climax involves the men traipsing across the Himalayas! You know, home of the tallest mountain on the planet. That’s after they braved the tundra of northern Russia and the arid desert of Mongolia and China. Watching these characters wither away from lack of food, water, proper footwear, and shelter is painful to experience – even though I was properly nourished, I found myself exceedingly thirsty for almost the entire film because so much of their plight was exacerbated by the lack of a nearby water source — and the believability of their triumph (well, for some of them, at least) was aided by the belief that this actually happened, even if not exactly as depicted.
My disappointment aside, the film is pretty good. Not great, which is what we come to expect from a seasoned director like Weir. The acting from everyone was spectacular, but the true standout was, surprisingly, Colin Farrell. Here’s a guy that came onto the scene with tons of potential; a leading man with chops to match his looks. Although that never quite coalesced as planned outside of some moments here and there in forgettable film followed by forgettable film. Even working with masters like Terrence Malick, Michael Mann, and Oliver Stone couldn’t quite capture anything iconic by the Irish braggart. That’s the one thing that Weir has on all of those aforementioned directors, because Farrell’s portrayal of Volka, a Stalin-loving, Soviet career criminal, is his finest performance yet. So much so that [half spoiler here] there’s a swath of the film where Volka isn’t on screen and the film losing some steam due to his absence. Considering he’s up against the always intense Ed Harris and a more-than-capable Jim Sturgess, I wasn’t expecting Farrell to steal every single scene he was in. But he did. His brutal psychopath with an odd sense of justice isn’t the most original character in filmdom, but Farrell brings his own charisma to the role making this one truly memorable.
“See, guys! This ain’t so bad, right? Temperate weather. Huge lake of fresh water for which to drink and bathe. Way better than that Soviet gulag, right?”
That section of the film that lacks Farrell has issues with it other than just him not being there. Not to divulge the ending, but it shouldn’t be a shock that not everyone who departs on this quest makes out alive. And during the second half of the second act, as the characters dwindle in numbers, so does our attention. Somehow, Weir’s narrative engine sputters as we know that Janusz and two others (as it’s told to us in the opening titles) makes it through to India, so it ends up being this painful experience of watching the remaining cast die from the brutal elements. Granted, a saving grace is that the elements themselves are depicted with incredible detail and imagery from filming on location in Morocco, Bulgaria, and India. There are a few scenes that were obviously done on a set, but most of the film provides vast expanses of desert or tundra, making the experience feel that much more real. I’m sure it helped with the actors’ performances to literally be out in this wilderness, braving the elements themselves — acting or not, being out in 120 degree desert heat is being out in 120 degree desert heat.
Overall, The Way Back tells a tale of the amazing abilities that humans have to survive. Even though the circumstances that found Janusz and the rest of the escapees out in this brutal environment were beyond depressing and horrific, the sheer will to live that they all shared, ultimately, was inspiring. While I’ve given this movie a lot of criticism for not actually being based on real events after all, it all would’ve been rendered moot had the on-screen events provided enough emotional oomph on their own. What keeps this from being a great film was that too much of the heart of the film relied on the viewer feeling that real people went through this actual perilous odyssey against bona fide evil in the form of Stalin’s prisons. Once that guise is removed, much of the gravitas goes with it, leaving us with a solid, not amazing, flick that technically delivers the goods, but, like some of the unfortunate travelers, just doesn’t have quite enough energy to make it all the way to a glorious end.
“RUN! IT’S ARNOLD VOSLOO!!”
It looks amazing. Truly a gorgeous film to watch. Some incredible locations are captured on celluloid that we haven’t quite seen like this before and deserves to be seen in full 1080p glory. Not much in the way of extras at all. The Behind the Scenes featurette is decent, although tends to be more of the same: everyone glowing about how amazing everyone else is on set. It seems like these are more for the cast and crew to give each other mad props than for actually divulging anything interesting that may have happened on set. Yet I still watch them in hopes of something revelatory…
Out of a Possible 5 Stars