Dir. Peter Weir. Starring Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Dragos Bucur
The Way Back is awfully cool to the touch, which is an issue I’ve always had with Peter Weir movies. His films, so frequently conceptual and odd, sound like movies I would love but all too often devolve into these technically remarkable and emotionally empty endurance fests. Picnic at Hanging Rock, for all that, is one of my absolute favorite movies. Not all of its characters ring true, but Miranda is so mysterious, Mademoiselle so helpless, Mrs. Appleyard so vindictive, and Sara so crestfallen that they make up for some weaker figures in other places. Master and Commander has a single line that cuts to the quick and reminds us of the humanity of its characters: “We don’t have time for your damned hobbies, sir!” Captain Aubrey scolds his best friend and medical officer, Maturin, and in that moment we see how a lifelong friendship can be badly hurt with a single sharp comment. There are no such characters in The Way Back, no enigma like Miranda and no villain like Mrs. Appleyard; there are certainly no lines of dialogue which are instantly memorable. And worse still, The Way Back fails to capture us with the journey of the characters.
There comes a time when it’s obvious that the guards are certainly not going to risk their skin for men who are almost certain to die in the Siberian wilderness, and so we hardly have to worry about people interdicting this escape. It’s clear that the land, alternately frigid or scalding or mosquito-ridden, is their true enemy. However, the land itself is totally impersonal. It just is cold, or is hot, or is mosquito-ridden. Where is the inscrutable malice, or the foolish arrogance of men? Where is the cultural difference between the League of Nations running around Lake Baikal and the people whose way of life is entirely different from theirs? I would have even taken the indifferent being who throws down obstacles for the sake of obstacles. The Way Back has no challenge, really, and the deaths of some characters en route, each of which is memorialized within the film, is mere meh. The movie proves what we know to be true within our own lives: simple survival is boring.
Part of the issue is that the film willingly jettisons its most energetic character about halfway through. Valka (Colin Farrell) is the only one of the fleeing group who was not arrested for some political reason; he is a gambler, a murderer, a sneakthief. He leaves the prison camp less because he wants to and more because his gambling debts are beginning to pile up to unsustainable levels. Valka has some deeply unironic tattoos of Lenin and Stalin; he carries a knife with a wolf etched on it which he brightly refers to as “Wolf.” Smith (Harris) tells Janusz (Sturgess) that by bringing Valka along he’s made a “deal with the devil.” It turns out to be significantly better than that, as this is an otherwise moral party which hesitates to steal or get its hands dirty. While on the outskirts of a town one night, Valka disappears and returns with a bag filled with food he’s stolen and blood on his shirt which he assures them came from a dog. Everyone makes a face and eats the food anyway, because they’ve been on the edge of starvation for many weeks and can’t say no. Eventually the party passes out of the USSR and into Mongolia. After lingering at the border far longer than a fellow so canny would be otherwise bound to do, Valka makes his choice. He admires Stalin, whom he sees as the man who’s redistributed the unfairly held wealth of old Russia. He also seems to have Brooks disease: he is unsure what one does with as much freedom as his comrades are trying to work toward. In the end he stops at the border without even putting a toe into Mongolia and turns around. In that moment, the movie shrivels up and dies. One is reluctant to use the phrase “wild card” after seeing that episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadephia, but that’s what Valka was. He provided the only counter to a group of people doing the right thing and fighting for survival at all costs. When he stays back, everyone falls in more or less silently behind Jim Sturgess and mopes about the desert for, oh, six hours.
There was a strange five year period back there from 2007 to 2012 when the world tried to convince us that Jim Sturgess was a verifiable leading man, and The Way Back surrounds him with enough people shorter than him to pretend that’s more or less true. Sturgess is best when he’s surrounded by more interesting people; next to weird Tom Hanks and David Gyasi in the “Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” strand of Cloud Atlas, for example, I rather like him. Much the same is true here, where he is surrounded by Colin Farrell, Ed Harris, and teenage Saoirse Ronan. Mark Strong has a small role in the beginning playing the man who inspires Janusz to escape the camp; Sturgess basks in the warmth under the wing of that dragon. Credit is also due to the mostly nameless Eastern European actors who round out the group of escapees: Dragos Bucur, Gustaf Skarsgard, Alexandru Potocean. Their characters figure more prominently in the end than Farrell’s or Ronan’s, but in handing over the end of the movie to them, the film loses track of itself. They simply weren’t important enough at the beginning, and if Zoran or Andrejs were going to matter so much at the end, we would have taken more of them instead of Farrell. I happen to like Skarsgard’s performance as Andrejs, the former priest who killed one of the men who desecrated his church in Latvia. Of the non-name brand performers in the film, he has the most to work with, and I’m sure I could have stood to have more of him at the expense of, say, Janusz’s needless visions of his old house.
Saoirse Ronan is probably my favorite actress under 30, but her presence in the film is maybe the greatest mystery of all. Irena appears around Lake Baikal, which was the planned end of the first leg for the escaped prisoners, and quickly ingratiates herself with Janusz and ultimately with the rest of the group. Smith is the last one to accept her (even after Valka, who is tremendously well behaved with her), and does so begrudgingly at first. He is leery of letting her into the group: they will have to feed her and, he says, she will slow them down. Later on, she lies to him transparently about her origin story, and is forced to tell him the truth. All this leads up to a scene where Smith, whose son was tortured to death by the Soviets, tells some Mongolians that she is his daughter. Perhaps I am too cynical to be moved by this “twist,” but then again I doubt my cynicism is the problem. (Haven’t we all seen crotchety old men become paternal and protective when given some mysterious blonde girl? Isn’t that a weird enough trope that we can leave it alone for a while?) When Irena dies in the Gobi Desert, it is something of a relief; the film simply did not know what to do with her, and it was kinder to see her sunburn her way to death.