REVIEW: Director Peter Weir Returns Via Bold, Bumpy Way Back
The kind of filmmaking excitement that director Peter Weir brings to movies is bone deep. It doesn't emerge in the flashy flourishes that come off as compulsively exhibitionistic -- the "Dude, Where's My Camera Car?" school. Instead, in the potent and dream-like The Way Back, Weir's subtle control is evident by the way he uses sound, embracing the allure and menace it simultaneously evokes. And we're reminded how crushingly obvious many directors are about incorporating the aural aspect of their work; generally when the audience is aware of it, it's used like a blunt object by horror film directors.
Weir's artisan's sureness grants a bewitching calm -- his trademark ambience -- to this harrowing tale. After an eight-year absence -- his last movie was 2003's Master and Commander -- he returned with another adaptation reminiscent of a boy's book of adventure. The Way Back, adapted for the screen by Weir and Keith Clarke based on Skawomir Rawicz's controversial The Long Walk, has the same hazardous exploit sensation of Master as well as 1981's Gallipoli. Back follows a group of soldiers who escape from a Soviet gulag during World War II. As difficult as prison life was, the escapees find that the most formidable enemy is nature as their trek takes them from deepest Siberia through to the Himalayas.
Among the men who undertake the escape are Janusz (Jim Sturgess), Valka (Colin Farrell) and Mr. Smith (Ed Harris). The material allows Weir to traffic in the archetypes he's often employed. As he has in the past, Weir uses Harris as a man of mystery who has more answers than he'll explain -- he's both malevolent and benevolent. (It's a character from his playbook that dates back to Linda Hunt in The Year of Living Dangerously). Sturgess is the willful innocent, who clings to naiveté as fiercely the idea of freedom.
These contrasts make clear what attracted Weir to Back: his love of flinging a protagonist into an alien environment, and defining him by his reaction to it. It's a shrewd method of solving the problem of a book's advantage: interior monologues. Remember that flaming scar in the wheat field that he slowly reveals in Fearless -- which novelist Rafael Iglesias adapted from his own novel -- and Jeff Bridges' almost psychotic detachment as he walks the survivors of a plane wreck through it?
I'm not sure if it's this that makes Sturgess seem passive, or if that was an acting choice. In other cases -- most of them, in fact -- this approach allows Weir to dramatize his hero's ambition. We get more of that from Farrell -- possibly because it's something he's done before, even though the furtive Valka isn't that person. And perhaps by default, Harris' self-possession -- he's like Fred C. Dobbs carved into Mount Rushmore -- claims center position.
Sturgess' languidness robs The Way Back of some of its drama; you almost feel like he's watching the whole scenario take place in his head, and he's lost in it. It takes an almost demented star presence to hold the screen and shoulder Weir's love of silence -- there aren't many English-speaking directors so willing to eschew dialogue. Jim Carrey made the plunge in The Truman Show, as did Bridges in Fearless and Mel Gibson - insert your own almost demented joke here -- in Dangerously. When Saoirse Ronan -- as a fellow young Polish escapee -- appears and complicates the journey, your attention goes to her because she has a concentration on matters at hand that Sturgess lacks. But it's good to have Weir working again; his intuitive command of craft makes The Way Back pleasurable.