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Eugene Weekly : Movies : 1.27.11

The Wanderers

The long and winding road of The Way Back

by Jason Blair

THE WAY BACK: Directed by Peter Weir. Written by Weir and Keith Clarke, based on the book The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz. Cinematography, Russell Boyd. Music, Burkhard Dallwitz. Starring Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess, Saoirse Ronan, Colin Ferrell, and Dragos Bucur. Newmarket Films, 2010. PG-13. 133 minutes.

Colin Ferrell in The Way Back

Other than perhaps Stanley Kubrick, director Peter Weir is modern cinemas polymath, a man capable of moving freely across genres while never breaking a sweat. Weir, after establishing the Australian New Wave with Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and Gallipoli (1981), would go on to create a film résumé as diverse and critically acclaimed as anyone in the past thirty years. With such films as Witness, Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show and Master and Commander, he coaxed career-defining performances from genre actors (Harrison Ford) and comedians (Robin Williams and Jim Carrey), receiving no less than four Academy Award nominations for Best Director. Visionary and original, Weir is as close to a sure thing as exists in movies today, which is why The Way Back is such a stinging disappointment. Its an average film by a director who doesnt make average films.

The Way Back opens promisingly enough. In Siberia in 1939, young Janusz (Jim Sturgess) is sentenced to a Soviet prison camp, a place so remote that a camp guard hisses, "Nature is your jailer.” Janusz, a former Polish officer, soon falls into the company of Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), a secretive American, and Valka (Colin Ferrell), a dangerous criminal. Along with four others who, even when taken together, dont add up to three dimensions, the men make a daring escape into the night. Ive been chased by a wasp for longer than the Russians chase the escapees, but no matter: The former prisoners, wary and exhausted, head south, where some of them ã the film reveals the death count at the start ã will journey from Mongolia to China to Tibet, only to arrive at the base of the Himalayas where they expect India to be.

What draws these men together other than their distaste for bed lice and gruel, we never know, because The Way Back is a kept secret when it comes to motivation. When the first of them expires only footsteps from the fire, having gone blind due to malnutrition, Valka the thief is moved to say whats on everybodys mind ã "One less mouth to feed” ã only to inspire looks of such universal disapproval that a Catholic nun would blush. Such moments are what pass for relationships in The Way Back, where hiding from other people is an act of survival. The larger problem, however, is the scenery. Weir and cinematographer Russell Boyd overplay the breathtaking backdrops, putting us at ease rather than on edge and, in the process, dwarfing the desperate protagonists. Pallid, comfortable and largely without impact, The Way Back is a film about risking everything that risks very little.

A specter of inauthenticity hovers above The Way Back, and not just because its source material, a 1956 book, has been discredited. Its more the creep of disbelief one feels while listening to men speaking English in the remotest part of the world ã not just any English, but English inflected with a Russian accent, which like the Boston dialect is distracting even when delivered to perfection. I kept waiting for Inigo Montoya to show up in pursuit of the six-fingered man. The one actor who turns in a memorable performance is, of all people, the young Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe), who disappears into the role of Janusz, a man obsessed with one day seeing his wife again.

The Way Back needs more humor and imagination ã and more characters with people-like qualities. A heros villain, Valka is Ferrells toughest role to date; while he applies himself in the manner of Brad Pitt in Twelve Monkeys, Ferrell, like Pitt, ends up pushing too hard toward the characters edge. Ed Harris, with his Mt Rushmore face, all crags and pockets and not an ounce of fat, is his stoical, dependable self. But when forced to utter lines like "This changes everything,” one cant help but feel sorry for his wasted effort. Then again, at least wed feel something.