Over the past few years, Ben Affleck has projected an onscreen energy that one might generously describe as “world-weary.” As a movie star, he’s experienced peaks and valleys, but his recent air of detachment came at an ostensible high point in his career, as he took on the role of Batman for a comic-book franchise. When Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice came out in 2016, Affleck had recently won his second Oscar (the 2013 Best Picture trophy for his film Argo) and gotten stellar reviews for his performance in Gone Girl. So why did he seem so bored while clad in a suit of armor battling bad guys?
His personal life certainly played a part. Affleck had separated from Jennifer Garner, his wife of 12 years, in 2015 (they divorced two years later), and was admitted to rehab for alcohol addiction in 2017 and again in 2018. But the actor never discussed that difficult period in much detail until now, with the release of his new movie, The Way Back. A restrained and impressive drama from the director Gavin O’Connor, the film stars Affleck as an alcoholic basketball coach trying to get his life on track. In a lengthy interview with The New York Times last month, Affleck talked about his struggles with drinking and how “therapeutic” he found the role, one that O’Connor said the actor was “ready to go to really deep, dark places” with.
That connection and dedication shows: The Way Back features the rawest and most natural performance Affleck has given in his career. He’s the worthy centerpiece of a small, character-focused drama—the sort of project that’s all too rare in Hollywood these days. Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, a high-school basketball phenomenon who has fallen on hard times and is coaxed back to his alma mater to coach its hoops team. The film has the ring of an inspirational sports drama, focusing on Jack’s journey to sobriety through his connection with his students. But the script avoids unnecessary speechifying and clean-and-simple lessons about how to overcome addiction, emphasizing how gradual and difficult Jack’s journey to recovery will be.
The biggest reason the movie works, though, is Affleck himself. That’s something I’m not sure I would say about any other film he has been in, especially as he’s become better known for his work behind the camera with movies like The Town and Argo. This is not to say I dislike Affleck as a performer; he’s done standout work in comic fare such as Chasing Amy and Shakespeare in Love, and in restrained, almost forgotten 2000s dramas such as Changing Lanes and State of Play.
In the past, he worked best when his director knew exactly how to play off of his star image, and there’s no better example than David Fincher’s Gone Girl, in which Affleck plays a handsome golden boy suspected of murdering his wife. Fincher understood how to warp Affleck’s easygoing appeal with the slightest sense of menace, and the result called to mind Hitchcock’s collaboration with popular movie stars such as Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. As the avuncular Nick Dunne, Affleck leaned into his dimple-chinned charm as he insisted he knew nothing of the disappearance of his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), all the while dropping hints that his marquee-idol looks were a façade for his insecurities. Looking back at Gone Girl helps explain why the authentic bluntness of The Way Back feels like such a departure: The new movie isn’t about Affleck the leading man, but rather Affleck the person.
The undercurrent of darkness that Fincher tapped into for Gone Girl likely appealed to Zack Snyder, who picked Affleck to play Batman as a veteran of crime-fighting drained of enough idealism to be provoked into a fight with the idealist Superman. But Affleck’s performance was drowned out by frantic world-building and endless action sequences; his larger-than-life character felt lifeless. Batman v. Superman was a hit at the box office, but was poorly received by critics, and its follow-up, Justice League, which suffered through extensive rounds of reshoots, was a critically reviled financial disappointment. Plans to have Affleck write, direct, and star in a solo Batman movie were shelved (that film is now being made with Robert Pattinson in the lead role).
Affleck was indeed as uninterested in the press tour for Dawn of Justice as he seemed to be at the time, the actor told the Times in the February profile. “I showed somebody the Batman script,” Affleck recalled of his shelved solo movie. “They said, ‘I think the script is good. I also think you’ll drink yourself to death if you go through what you just went through again.’” Now, instead of making impersonal franchise fare or movies that rely on his film-star presence, he’s currently focused on playing haunted and broken men in smaller, adult-themed dramas. The pathos that Affleck brought to his performance in last year’s Triple Frontier helped elevate the rather excellent action film, in which he played an alcoholic veteran who meets a tragic end.
Affleck’s onscreen vulnerability is even more powerful in The Way Back. He plays Jack with lumbering physicality, knowing exactly how to dramatize his drunken stupors by slowing down his movements and dulling his reflexes. Affleck communicates all of the movie’s emotional breakthroughs via little choices—an angry swipe at an empty beer can when he’s being pressed on his drinking, or slowly curling into a ball when he admits the extent of his problem. It’s the kind of subtlety I’ve never seen Affleck demonstrate as a performer. The fact that he brings his real-life battles to the movie may be uncomfortable for some viewers, but the actor insists he approached the role carefully. “The benefits, to me, far outweighed the risks. I found it very therapeutic,” Affleck told the Times of playing a character with alcoholism. The director, O’Connor, added, “I think that Ben, in an artistic way, in a deeply human way, wanted to confront his own issues through this character and heal.”
If The Way Back—and upcoming films like Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel—is the start of a genuine comeback for Affleck, it wouldn’t be his first return to form. He became a superstar in the 1990s, winning a writing Oscar for Good Will Hunting and appearing in blockbusters such as Armageddon. But he saw his A-list status fade after a string of flops, including Gigli and Jersey Girl. He reclaimed the spotlight mostly by displaying his talents as a filmmaker, then was brought low again by a combination of personal troubles, old scandals, and the Batman flop. For Affleck, the way back has tended to involve risk-taking. This time, he could rebound by leaving the superhero act behind and taking on roles that hold real meaning for him.