FILM OF THE WEEK: The Way Back
by Vadim Rizov
When you have—as with The Way Back
—an old-fashioned, grueling trek odyssey with plenty of far-off shots of tiny figures crossing a vast landscape, there's a danger in making it sound like an awards-season anachronism for the old folks. Describing the difficulties he had getting financing for his first film in seven years, director Peter Weir sounded
surprisingly like a man who feels out of time: "One [studio exec] said 'We aren't in that kind of business anymore.' I thought what
kind of business? Show business
?" Truly, Weir has more to offer than mere old-school, impress-through-sheer-scale spectacle. That same sound byte might've been uttered by David Lean
at his most peevish; when Lean was interviewed by Gerald Pratley on the CBC in March 1965 (collected in the out-of-print, Andrew Sarris-edited anthology Interviews with Film Directors
), he sniped the kitchen-sink realism and other "obscure" films rising in awards prominence. Doctor Zhivago
would be his last great success, and the kind of sweeping epic he'd come to specialize in was on the way out. "I, personally, often worry about being old-fashioned," he said. "But I like a good strong story. I like a beginning, a middle and an end."
Lean's best films had much more to offer than such a dourly dutiful rundown; it's too bad Weir would defend his new film in such flat temporal terms. The Way Back
is based on a memoir whose veracity
is questionable: someone may well have escaped from a Siberian gulag in 1940 and trudged with companions to India, but it probably wasn't author Slavomir Rawicz. Regardless, Weir's movie cleaves closely to the narrative. A group of Soviet prisoners—along with gruffly anonymous, American engineer Mr. Smith (Ed Harris
)—flee in the middle of a snowstorm and make their way through woods, fields, around towns, over railway and national borders, across deserts, ducking sandstorms, hiking over the Himalayas, etc. There's some of the inevitable wonkiness attending the spectacle of English actors attempting verrrrrry Rooooosian accents, but all the physicality is superb, which fortunately is some 70% of the movie.
That includes Colin Farrell
's Russian mafia type, who mostly acts/swaggers with his knife. He has the right idea, imposing himself corporeally in a story whose role requirements (Slavs speak functional English, portrayed by actors of various nationalities) don't leave much room for verbal subtlety. Farrell, Harris and the sole woman aside, no one boldly stands out (though they all get at least one Oscar-clip speech apiece). The intro is clunky—a clumsy Stalinist interrogation, prisoners meeting each other, much leering in shaky inflections—but Weir gets the men out of the camp in 25 minutes, not even bothering to fully show their escape. Their getting away is a prerequisite, and Weir doesn't waste time or insult audience intelligence by trying to get false suspense from it. The opening title cards let us know how many fled and how many survived: there's no question of how it'll turn out.
Similarly, when the fugitives have to cross the border into Mongolia—across a railroad regularly monitored by guards with guns and dogs—we don't even see that; it's also a given. Weir's as skilled at knowing what not to show as when to stun, which gives his numerous epic moments true weight. This isn't quite a Herzogian
dare, but still unabashedly muscular filmmaking minus the usual macho posturing. Survival tasks come one at a time, an unforced yarn in which every event has equal impact. The majesty of the locations is tempered by the surprising reserve and soft-spokenness of the stakes: it's closer to Gerry
that way than the hundreds-of-extras approach to too many an epic, in which the scale of visual human expanse confirms social import.
The film unfortunately but forgivably ends as it began: poorly, with a two-minute montage of the Cold War—rendered as the world's most predictable newsreel-highlights-presentation—that attempts to make god knows what kind of point about the decline of the Soviet Union. There's one politically incisive moment, when Farrell's thug—having lived to make it to the border-crossing—turns back, saying he wouldn't know what to do with freedom anyway. It's not an unfamiliar idea, but it's not one filmed often. (Certainly it's more useful than yet another monologue about the horrors of genocide.) The journey across countries is a physical rather than political trajectory, man vs. nature largely unmediated. It's about spearing snakes, searching for water and all that walking: grand-scale storytelling that understands tangible non-CGI wilderness is scary because it can kill you. Weir's Master and Commander
about the geopolitical stakes of the Napoleonic wars, and The Way Back
similarly doesn't need its historical scaffolding. The elements don't change, but the rewards do. Hardly an anachronism, The Way Back
is terrific, robust filmmaking at a time when no-F/X indicates poverty, and its relatively modest budget underscores the hardiness of its subject and director alike.
[The Way Back opens December 29 in limited release, and wider in January. For more info, visit the official site.]
Posted by ahillis at December 28, 2010 1:15 PM