In an age where the bankability of an adventure film is measured in gallons of oil exploded, Peter Weir's somber trek "The Way Back" is something of a revelation. Unlike his last film, the rousing but decidedly Hollywood nautical yarn "Master and Commander," Weir dials back star power and technique until all that's left is an uncommonly naturalistic interpretation of the supposedly true events that led political prisoners encamped at a Siberian gulag to walk 4,000 miles to India and their freedom.
First, a complaint: I don't mean to come off as a dick, but the fact that Weir preemptively dedicates this film to those men irks me. Not only because so much doubt has been cast on the validity of the story itself, but also because conventional wisdom would be to place that placard on the last spool rather than the first. It strikes me as a little self-serving to presume respect from an audience upfront for a struggle they haven't even seen yet, or on a baser level, to disconnect them from the story before it's even begun. I realize I may be belaboring a very minor point, but as with the superfluous historical preface and dodgy title card, "The Way Back" and I got off on the wrong foot.
Thankfully, there's no arguing with Weir's visuals. From the moment he drops us into the oppressive wind-swept Siberian winter, the director creates unparalleled atmosphere. From the suffocating soot of a hellacious mineshaft to the steep sea of dunes that comprise the Mongolian desert, Weir absolutely captures the mercilessness of his environments. That characters freeze and bake to death, or are reduced to near madness by hunger, underscores the mortal gravity of their journey better than most filmmakers manage.
But what really sets "The Way Back" apart is its humanity. Where many would settle for stifling melodrama, Weir finds a way to eke out a joke. Our companions are a good-humored lot in spite of the ubiquitous peril their mission entails. It keeps them sane and keeps the movie watchable. Jim Sturgess takes the lead as an almost naively optimistic outdoorsman, followed in tow by a battle worn pragmatist (Ed Harris), and a lone wolf with a knife to match—Colin Farrell in a surprisingly funny and endearing performance. The characters are our only recourse from the barren landscape, and they provide much needed color.
In spite of their contributions, "The Way Back" is still a long film. Perhaps even purposefully overlong; the way Weir depicts the cruelly relentless terrain would lose its impact under more constrictive narrative pacing. My only gripe is that the tempo Weir employs isn't always consistent. By comparison to our stint in the Siberian wilderness, the hike over the Himalayas feels like a disappointingly anti-climactic cakewalk, especially given that it represents the final threshold into India. The looming 133-minute run time doesn't make for 100% great cinema, but what Weir attempts is admirable despite the occasional missteps.
"The Way Back" represents an endangered species of storytelling, and it's no surprise that it went largely unseen in its sparse theatrical release. The film is definitely not your typical thrill-a-minute actioner, but it delivers on the ever-important human element. Weir continues to solidify his status as one of modern cinema's most unjustly unsung heroes, and his latest towers above many of its more popular contemporaries. It may not measure up in terms of barrels of oil exploded, but those sick of fireworks may actually want to see a show.