The Way Back follows a group of gulag prisoners that escape from prison. Early on in the film, a prison guard tells them that Siberia is there prison, because no one could ever hope to escape. If the weather didn’t kill you, starvation would. If that didn’t, than the locals would (is this to mean wolves or Mongolians? I was a bit confused). Amongst the ragtag gang we have the resident Joker (Dragos Bucur), a feral criminal (Colin Farrell), an artist (Gustaf Skasgard), and our two “main characters”, the American, known only as Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), and Janusz (Jim Sturgess).
However, as the men fight snow and starvation, they begin to blur together due to similar accents (of varying degrees of believability), and similar looks. The camera consistently shows us the pain the men must feel due to the weather – with frozen bodies in the snow and long, straggly beards at first, then sunburnt faces and chapped lips. The camera does this in a slow, unshaken manner, finding the beauty in the broken. The camerawork is by far the best part of the film.
However, despite being given such a range of actors with great talents – I’ve liked Jim Sturgess since Across The Universe and has Ed Harris ever done poorly in a role? – we are allowed to forget about their differences. Most are given only a sketching of a backstory, and most of those are described by a young Polish girl (Saoirse Ronan) that travels with them for a time. She does this in a dialogue with Ed
The film is based on a “true story” in the sense that many horror movies are based on “true stories”. It turns out that the man who wrote the best-selling account of walking out of the Siberian wilderness all the way to India (!) was released by the USSR in 1942. However, I think movies can still be compelling, even under the vise of being told a story that may not be truly real. Even the best biopics seem to embellish or make larger than life characters even larger.
Overall, I think despite the fact I had characterization problems, it’s the fact that the characters were thrown away so easily that bugged me the most. I’m not talking about the deaths – obviously people die when attempting this type of trek – I’m referring to the fact that Colin Farrell’s character literally leaves with no real resolution. Ed Harris does the same thing, only the group leaves him. There’s no real ending, he’s just not there anymore. In fact, on a number of occasions, characters leave the group only to return. It’s awfully frustrating.
All in all, the film is very pretty, but lacks enough in characters to be substantial. I’m going to give it a “C+”. Thanks for reading!
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"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"