Image Entertainment // 2010 // 133 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // April 25th, 2011
Their escape was just the beginning.
In 1956, Slawomir Rawicz published The Long Walk, a harrowing tale of his escape from a Soviet Gulag in Siberia in 1941. According to Rawicz, he and six other prisoners snuck away during a blizzard, then walked over 4,000 miles across the Gobi desert and through the Himalayas to freedom in India.
The opening of Soviet records after the fall of Communism has largely discredited Rawicz's story (rather than executing a daring escape, he appears to have been released from the Gulag during an amnesty for Poles). But pesky facts didn't prevent director Peter Weir (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) from crafting a mostly compelling escape flick based on the memoir.
During the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, army officer Janusz (Jim Sturgess, Across the Universe) is sentenced to 20 years in the Gulag as an enemy of the people based on the coerced testimony of his own wife. Knowing that his wife will never be able to forgive herself for her betrayal (even though it was tortured out of her), Janusz is determined to escape the prison camp and make his way back home. He assembles a team of six men willing to accompany him on the journey, including an American named Mr. Smith (Ed Harris, Pollock) and a frightening Russian criminal named Valka (Colin Farrell, In Bruges). The group fights starvation and the elements as they attempt to push southward to Lake Baikal, and then follow the lake to its southern tip where they can journey into Mongolia. Along the way, they take on a teenage Pole named Irena (Saoirse Ronan, The Lovely Bones) who claims to have escaped from a collective farm in Warsaw.
Eventually, the group finds its way to Mongolia, but discovers that the country has fallen to Communism. Determined to return to his wife, Janusz is undeterred. He and the rest of the group press on across the Gobi desert, hoping to make it to freedom in British-controlled India.
The Way Back isn't a prison escape movie so much as an incredibly bleak road picture. Jailbreak movies from The Great Escape to Escape from Alcatraz tend to be obsessed with the methodical formulation of plans with a million moving pieces, creating third-act tension by presenting us with various elements of the plan gone awry. The Way Back wastes little time in the minutiae of the escape (the group just cuts through a barbed wire fence during a blizzard and runs like hell). It's far more interested in the exhausting life-and-death journey that follows the escape, and how the pressures of that journey reveal the true natures of the members of the group. Unfortunately, none of those natures is all that surprising. We know from the outset that there's a soft underbelly to Ed Harris' gruff, amoral old man; and Colin Farrell's tattooed thief is violent and scary, but not so erratic as to throw the plot in unexpected directions. The Way Back unfurls with few surprises. It's a good thing, then, that it's blessed with gorgeous locations presented by way of Weir's rock-solid eye for composition, and fine performances by an A-list lead cast (Harris's and Farrell's characters may be two-dimensional types, but each man performs with a maximum of honed naturalism that adds heft to their roles).
Despite beautifully photographed scenery, strong performances, and some truly gut-wrenching set pieces, The Way Back feels like a long journey with no destination. Characters reveal their inner motivations, but never really grow or change. Some merely fade away through death or desertion midway through the picture. It may be that the absence of a satisfying narrative arc comes directly from Rawicz's book, but considering the book is most likely a lie and that Weir pushed back against its constraints enough to rename the main character, it would have made a better picture if he'd gone the extra fictionalizing step of driving toward a particular theme or strengthening the character of Janusz into something of a mad force of nature. Janusz's deeply emotional motivations for the journey aren't revealed until near the end of the movie. He lacks the obsessive drive of Steve McQueen in Papillon -- a lesser movie than The Way Back in many ways (it was certainly made by a lesser director), but one that draws its notable energy from a memorable protagonist. Janusz may be admirable, but he's not a magnetic symbol of anti-authoritarianism. He's not even the most memorable character in the movie. As The Way Back draws to a conclusion, we've witnessed some truly dramatic human events but there's little sense that any of it meant much of anything. Instead, Weir hits us with a sentimental and unsatisfying coda that captures little of the texture of Janusz's real suffering.
The Way Back looks superb on Blu-ray. The 1080p/AVC transfer captures depth and detail with such precision that you can practically feel the extreme heat of the Gobi and the icy cold of Siberia. Audio is amazing for a movie lacking in conventional action. The entire soundstage is constantly in play, creating an intense and immersive experience. In many ways, nature is the enemy in The Way Back, and the audio mix on this disc is designed to place the viewer in the beautiful but deadly environments on display. It's incredibly effective.
The disc is light on extras, offering up only a 30-minute making-of featurette and a trailer for the movie.
The Way Back feels incomplete. It's a man-against-man/man-against-nature epic that doesn't quite land with the human emotion and thematic meaning it deserves. Still, its component pieces are so beautifully acted and photographed that it's not to be missed. Give it a rent.
Review content copyright © 2011 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 133 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13