Jack Cunningham is what some might call a “functional” drinker.
The key is keeping his continual consumption quietly out of sight. You see, he’s gotten practiced at secreting away the booze in a metal coffee cup at his construction job, keeping a necessary beer cooler in the back seat of his car and swigging back vodka before family functions at his sister’s house.
Of course, if you were to ask Jack about it, he would shrug it off. I’m not an addict, he’d say. Just a guy coping with the nasty bits of life. And even if he does have a regular stool at the local bar and drinks ‘til he can barely move just about every night, hey, he sleeps it off. If there’s one thing Jack can handle, it’s his liquor. A quick morning beer and a shower always does the trick.
That boozing and balancing routine gets nudged a bit, however, when Jack gets a call from the priest over at his high school alma mater. Bishop Hayes informs Jack that the basketball coach at the Catholic school had a heart attack. And Father Devine instantly thought of Jack. The fact is, the school’s team hasn’t been competitive or gone to the playoffs since way back when Jack was the star of the team. Maybe this unfortunate event could open the door for a positive change for everybody.
Jack spends the night drinking his way through a refrigerator full of beer and giving voice to all the reasons that the idea is complete nonsense. But in the end, he grabs yet another drink, takes a hot shower and decides to give it a shot.
He’ll have to cut back a bit on the booze, of course. That won’t work while coaching kids at a Catholic high school. But he can make that happen. I mean, he’s not an actual drunk. Besides, this could be fun. If he can find the way back into the swing of the sport again, they might even win some games. And winning can be addictive, a real high.
And let’s face it: Reaching for the next high is something Jack knows a lot about.
Jack isn’t a bad man. He can actually be a nice person: easy with a joke and ready to speak and play lovingly when he spends time with his sister and her kids. But make no mistake: Jack Cunningham is a terribly wounded individual, in large part because of a tragic loss in his past.
Because of Jack’s struggles, a number of people lovingly watch over him—including Jack’s sister, his estranged wife and an elderly friend who regularly makes sure that he gets home safely. Those people all encourage Jack to get help. And they move to support him when he finally admits that he needs rehab. Jack’s sister, for instance, reminds him, “We can’t change the past, Jack. What we can do is choose how we move forward.”
In spite of his addiction-imposed shackles, Jack still has a solid impact on the kids he coaches. He motivates them to work harder, and to care more about their sport and each other. He reaches out to one parent and encourages the man to step up and support his son. And he also uses his innate basketball skill set to help a couple of the young players think more clearly about their own strengths and abilities.
The basketball practices and games all take place at Catholic schools. That doesn’t necessarily translate to better life choices for Jack and the students; but the faith’s influence is evident in the school officials’ lives and in the code of conduct those men work to enforce.
The team chaplain, for instance, prays with the guys before a game. And he repeatedly presses Jack to curb his use of foul language (something that Jack and the students have a hard time doing, a habit that’s repeatedly played as a joke). In fact, after one verbal slap on the wrist from the chaplain, Jack asks, “You’d like me to be a little more Christlike on the bench?” But then he sneers, “With all the bad things in the world, do you think whoever’s up there, really gives a sh–?!” Jack also declares that he doesn’t believe that a deceased loved one is “in a better place.”
We see crosses and other Christian symbols on display from time to time. And school faculty members say things such as “God bless,” and, “We all have our cross to bear.”
Students make several crude sexual comments. One of the team’s players regularly kisses and woos different young women with the same repeated sexual innuendo. Jack tells a couple crude jokes (related to oral sex) to guys at the bar.
We find out that Jack and his wife, Angela, have been separated for a year. She tells Jack she’s been recently dating someone, and he spits out a crude statement about her sex life with the man. And Jack drunkenly picks up a woman at the bar and drives her home for an intimate connection (though the two never make it there).
Jack’s constant, alcoholic self-abuse is its own form of violence, to be sure. We repeatedly see the man drink himself into a staggering, stumbling stupor. On one occasion, though, that results in him crashing his car into the back end of a boat trailer. Then he drunkenly breaks into someone else’s house, gets into a brawling struggle, rolls down some concrete steps through a fence and lands face down on the street. When he gets up his forehead and cheek are bloodied.
We hear about someone close to Jack having died from the ravages of cancer. We see kids struggling with the disease and parents emotionally battered because of it.
Nearly 60 f-words and more 30 s-words join multiple uses each of “a–,” “h—” and b–ch.” God’s name is combined with “d–n” five times. And crude references are made to both male and female genitalia.
Jack drinks heavily throughout the film, as already mentioned. And in many cases—whether at the local bar filled with other patrons or in all-night binges alone at home—that results in him being barely able to walk or simply passing out in a heap. Jack and other adults also smoke cigarettes.
We learn about the searing grief that sent Jack spiraling into alcoholism. A drunken Jack breaks into someone’s house and uses the toilet. And Jack’s young niece jokingly calls him “Uncle Fart Poop.”
Sports and substance abuse—both in real life and movie life—are no strangers. The Way Back is a painful portrait of the latter: a fictional story of an alcoholic coach who struggles to bring a floundering team, and himself, back to winning form. But if you’re expecting a hard-edged, cheer-worthy comeback story, well, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.
Yes, we have an underdog high school basketball team; a suffering coach; and a season that must be saved through effort and teamwork. There are bootstraps to be pulled up and victories to be won. But trust me: This is much more a tale of soul-sucking grief and brutal addiction than it’s a rah-rah comeback story. It’s more The Lost Weekend than Hoosiers.
To a certain extent, that’s praiseworthy. After all, addiction isn’t something that’s bested in 90 minutes and won over just at the buzzer. It’s often a lifelong torment that destroys and devours. Actor Ben Affleck, who reportedly drew from his own real-life struggles with substance abuse, helps viewers face the disquieting and ugly reality of alcoholism.
But watching a man repeatedly drink himself into a stupor and suffer great anguish and humiliating personal defeats isn’t what you’d call entertaining. Especially when the experience is also peppered with the steady rat-a-tat-tat of the foulest profanities and vulgarities.
This is a cautionary tale with small victories and moments of sunshine breaking through, to be sure. But there’s quite a bit of tragedy, loss, foulness and pain pivoting and posting on this cinematic court. And you should know that before taking your spot in the movie-house bleachers.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.