“The Way Back” features more walking than I’ve ever seen from a film. Combine all three “Lord of the Rings” pictures, and there’s still less arduous trekking than found in this movie. It’s a true-life tale of endurance and unimaginable distance brought to the screen by filmmaker Peter Weir, who captures the agony and companionship of life on the move, where a group of strangers faced the fight of their life hiking through debilitating environmental challenges.
At the dawn of WWII, Polish solider Janusz (Jim Sturgess) is sent to Siberia for detainment, thrown inside a brutal prison located in the middle of a forbidding frozen wasteland. Humiliated, starved, and freezing, Janusz is ready to escape, a thought quelled by his fellow inmates, who find the task impossible. Encouraged by Smith (Ed Harris), an American prisoner, Janusz and a small band of inmates, including violent Russian criminal Valka (Colin Farrell), make a break for freedom, only to face a 4000-kilometer walk across unforgivable terrain. Boosted by their shared love of freedom, the companionship of a young girl (Saoirse Ronan) they pick up along the way, and the drive of their survival instinct, the group carries on to the brink of death, hoping to reclaim what’s left of their lives when they finally reach a safe haven.
Based on a memoir written by one of the survivors, “The Way Back” is an astounding story of perseverance in the face of certain doom, isolating the spiritual drive of men who refuse to march obediently to their death, preferring to perish as “free men” out in the wilds of the world. It’s a tale of bonding and wartime despair, yet the film primarily fixates on the mindset of endurance, and how that light can illuminate the way through arduous conditions and unbearable self-doubt.
Celebrated director Weir is an apt choice for the material, furthering his career observance of natural elements at war with human insistence. Weir lingers on the snow, sun, and sand, making the viewer feel the length of this journey, slowing down the picture to push viscerally through paralyzing hunger and thirst. Two hours of men suffering may not seem like an appetizing moviegoing proposition, but to truly feel the miracle at hand, one must endure the pains of passage. Slowly reduced to feral creatures (Weir makes a potent parallel to wolf behavior at one point), the group stumbles on, and we watch as sores develop, jaundice sets in, body fat is depleted, and the human form becomes a gallery of misery.
The light here is the feeling of inspiration and interaction as the group grows to rely on one another during the more grueling segments of the path, bonding as they hunt for food and water, face bodily trauma, and share desperate thoughts. The performances are uniformly strong, though very broad, with much of the cast working thick accents to express a certain weary mania that comes with starvation and isolation. The physical transformations are most striking here, as Weir retains the reality of the walk through tattered skin, rotted teeth, and a near-skeletal appearance from Harris, who makes a most chilling transformation, withering away as the months go by.
“The Way Back” is not an easy picture to endure, as Weir carefully examines every last step and troubled breath. The reward waiting at the end is an appreciation of sacrifice and resolve, sold through a patient observance of survival. It’s a film that develops after viewing, taking time to sink in as fates are reconsidered and brave motivations are appreciated.