Review: ‘The Way Back’

The Projector
Looking rough, Ed. Newmarket Films
Looking rough, Ed. Newmarket Films

1. Every time I type the title "The Way Back," I want to put the word "long" in it. It's almost an instinct. Part of this is subconsiously knowing that it's based off a book called "The Long Walk." But mostly: This is one of the longest movies I've seen in quite a while, and I saw the extended version of "Carlos." The running time isn't particularly lengthy; at 110 minutes, it's not all that longer than your average rom-com. But boy, does it feel like it. The film is about a group of Siberian prison escapees who trek from Siberia to India, about a 4,000-mile walk. Director Peter Weir attempts to simulate what it must have been like to endure a trip that grueling and exhausting. I can vouch that he is successful in that endeavor.

2. The film begins with Janusz (Jim Sturgess), a Polish prisoner of war, having his wife, under torture, finger him as a spy. It's a gripping, painful scene that the movie doesn't know what to do with the rest of the way. He's sentenced to Siberia, where he's forced to do hard labor all day with barely enough food and a serious lack of cosmetics. He joins forces with a random smattering of fellow prisoners to escape in the dead of night. The details of the prison break are muddled, confusing and uninspiring. A prison break is such a staple of cinema that it's almost like a musical number for directors: It's been done so often that all that matters is how the director puts his stamp on the material. Weir does nothing. All of a sudden, they're just out in the snow, before we know any of the characters, or can even recognize them. Still, you can't help but miss the prison scenes once they're breezily discarded. At least there, something is happening.

3. As "heroic" as those on this trek are purported to be, I'm honestly not sure I could pick more than two of them out of a lineup. Janusz is the leader, but that's his lone personality trait. I'd wager that 41 percent of his dialogue is some sort of variation on "we have to keep going." Ed Harris plays Mr. Smith, a stoic American with a tragic backstory we impatiently wait to be unveiled. (Harris doesn't have much to do, but he is impressively wan and haggard. He looks like a bearded version of those corpses at the "Bodies" exhibit.) There's an artist, and a "comedian" -- he never says anything funny, but we are told he is a comedian, so: Comedian -- and along the way they meet a young girl played by Saoirse Ronan whose signature feature is that she is a young girl. The only character who pops is a hardened criminal played by Colin Farrell, who for about the fifth time in a row is the best part of his movie. Farrell is feral and weird and menacing and gets a terrific introduction: Within 30 seconds of meeting a man, he stabs him in the stomach. More of that, please.

4. So, they walk and walk and walk and walk and walk and walk and walk and walk and walk and walk. The movie is basically a series of physical challenges -- snakes, deserts, snowstorms, mosquitos -- connected by walking montages. They are interminable. This has long been a dream project of Weir's, but it's baffling as to why. It's difficult to overstate how many panoramic shots of four people walking in a line there are in "The Long Way Back." (Darnit, there, I did it again.) Occasionally one will drop off, and we'll get a dramatic dying scene, and then: Back to the pretty, but endless, widescreen shots of tundra. You keep waiting Farrell's character to pop up to break the monotony ... and then he vanishes halfway though. You sink back in your seat. You're stuck with these guys the rest of the way.

5. I don't mean to trivialize this. "The Way Back" is based on a true story, and what those men went through was awful, and that some of them survived is a miracle. But this is not choice cinematic material: It's strange that Weir every thought it could be. A film like this needs a deconstructuralist's approach, a Danny Boyle type, someone with the imagination to liven up the material with stylistic tricks, or at least a handy flashback sequence or something. Weir, for all his talents, isn't that sort of director. If he had directed "127 Hours," the whole movie might have been a series of long takes of James Franco thinking. I find that I'm rarely bored at the movies; going to the movies, no matter what the movie, is almost always better than whatever else I might be doing. But I'm sorry: "The Way Back" is a boring movie. Repetitive, protracted and wearisome. Mostly, though: It's just long.

Grade: C.