The Way Back
Directed by Peter Weir
It's hard to sell a movie with the promise that it will make you feel like YOU have frostbite, gout, and are dying of dehydration, but that is the achievement of Peter Weir's first movie since 2003's Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Aided by gruesomely realistic makeup and immersive location shooting, The Way Back attempts to shorten the remove between characters and audience, making the latter feel something of the former's struggle. An unappealing experience, if the related 1941 walking journey from Siberian Gulag to British India weren't so seemingly impossible, and such a grand-scale metaphor for the resilience of the human spirit.
It plays like the truth, which also inspires awe, though it's only the ring of truth. The Slawomir Rawwicz memoir on which it's based, The Long Walk, was a popular bestseller since discredited as either fanciful bunkum or the misattributed account of another prisoner entirely. Fiction or not, the film slots in perfectly with the director's other man versus nature allegories like Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Mosquito Coast, and Master and Commander.
The Soviet prisoners, escapees, and journeyers include Polish cavalry officer Janusz (Jim Sturgess), a stoic and hardened American called Mister (Ed Harris), and a stab-happy but Artful Dodger-charming Russian criminal, Valka (Colin Farrell). The desperate assembly escapes the Gulag under cover of blizzard with the help of bark masks, and their yearlong odyssey through the Gobi Desert, Tibet, and the Himalayas subjects them to four seasons and several climates' worth of punishment. People die and defect, and a tagalong joins—a Polish teenage orphan and tale-teller (Saorise Ronan) who suffers most from desert thirst, in Weir's most borderline sadistic scenes.
Part of the reason the film leaves you feeling more thirsty and sunburned (the discovery of a water well is a joyous moment) than otherwise moved is that Sturgess's Janusz, the central character and Rawicz figure, is such a blank. He leaves you wanting more Farrell, who with his Stalin tat and violent energy provides a color that the prophet-like Harris, though badass, cannot. The Way Back is ever stunning visually, from frequent Weir DP Russell Boyd's panoramic establishing vistas to nasty closeups of realistically peeling lips and flesh. But outside of stated desires to return to bereaved wives, and the obvious basic survival struggle, there's not enough of interest happening beneath all the weathered visages.
Opens January 21