Survival is nothing new to Peter Weir. The Mosquito Coast, Master & Commander and, now, The Way Back, all deal directly with group struggles against the elements. In fact, virtually all of his films, along with those above, address personal crises in the midst of collective upheaval. These are themes that for Weir have always been gateways into narrative, rather than inquiries for their own sake. Never an ideologue and seldom an interrogator of human conscience, Weir is and has always been a maker of moods and deliverer of moments. As a result, his latest compares favorably with his landmark Gallipoli, a film of surfaces, a half-hearted study of men going to war in which the “going to” takes precedence. Here, men are leaving war, with the emphasis on “leaving”. An impulse to radically change course at the end of that earlier film shifted the focus to the psyches of those men unexpectedly. Conversely, The Way Back ends in roses, but not before Weir focuses on the helplessness, mortality and morality of his characters.
Seemingly taking its cue plotwise from Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”, we see protagonist Janusz (Jim Sturgess) whisked away by Soviet police following the confession of his wife, goaded and perhaps even tortured into accusing her husband of being a spy—for whom is never made clear. Now a prisoner-of-war, Janusz finds himself among former officers like himself, criminal gangs, extra-nationals—old, young and desperate men of many persuasions. Weir feebly renders Janusz an altruist when he stops to feed a hungry prisoner who moments earlier had tried to steal a scrap of bread from the ground belonging to a man who comes to be known as Mister Smith (Ed Harris). There seems little reason for this display other than to set up the character as noble and likeable in the audience’s minds and to give Harris the stalwart line, “Kindness. That may kill you here.” This sentiment is expressed with more candor later on when Smith agrees to escape; he says, predictively, that he knows a guy like Janusz will carry him on his back when he can no longer carry himself.
The film aims to be gritty from the start. Almost distractingly so in the scenes of camp labor where prisoners are often working in the mines; then in the bunks when tattooed Valka (Colin Farrell) stabs a man for his coat. There’s nothing new in the way of prison camp dynamics here. Narratively, Mister Smith presents an interesting portrait. All we know about him to this point is that he’s unafraid of death. He walks out of a prison queue at gunpoint and into a wooded area to save his own life from a sudden snowstorm. The guards are too incredulous to shoot him, and they also know he’s right; begrudgingly they order the other prisoners to follow Smith into the woods to find shelter. There must be something incredibly compelling underneath his stony visage if he’s willing to do something like that. Weir leaves those possibilities dangling for the time being.
So Janusz quickly sets about looking for ways to escape, petitioning at least one fellow prisoner, named Khabarov (Mark Strong in a low-key but believably paranoid performance), for assistance. Mister Smith convinces Janusz that Khabarov is full of shit, rapping an escape fantasy at every new prisoner he meets, and takes Janusz under his wing. The two hatch a plan with others to escape during the next winter gale, without provisions. It’s not so much a plan as a desperate plunge that will rely on the element of surprise. It works, but the group, which includes career criminal and ardent Stalinist Valka, has to contend with the harsh terrain with only the clothes on their backs. Janusz proves his mettle here, his wilderness smarts essentially saving the group from freezing to death or starving. He fashions what appears to be an Inuit invention to preserve one’s sight in blinding snowfall, masks made of poplar bark with thin slits for seeing.
Hats off to Boyd and company for some wonderful second unit photography which Weir artfully grafts onto scenes of the men plotting their course south, gathering tinder and taking stock of their wares. The interspersal of location shots of the landscape wherever they happen to be gives the land a presence it may not otherwise have had even in a story set primarily in the wilderness. So we have pretty frames of Lake Baikal saturated in an overcast glow as Janusz takes sextant readings, an episode where the group purchases these absurd necklaces to combat an onslaught of mosquitoes, unexpected faces in rock formations, a constant interaction between man and nature, an endless give and take.
The film, paradoxically, gathers real strength the moment its most interesting (or potentially interesting) character leaves it. Valka parts company with the band at the Mongolian border, returning to his native soil likely to be recaptured. “Freedom, I wouldn’t know what to do with it,” he explains to an understanding Janusz. The other six trudge on, reaching an outpost on the way to Ulan Bator crested with images of Stalin and a red star. Apparently they hadn’t realized that Mongolia had been a Soviet ally since the ’20s. They reason then that India is the nearest refuge. Here the film nearly becomes a travelogue (or travel advisory) of central Asia as the renegades march inexorably from screen left to right for hundreds of miles across the pitiless Gobi desert and eventually to the Himalayas and into India. There’s a lot of music and a lot of walking.
It’s in the desert that the seeds of character development finally bear fruit. We see the group struggle to find water. After an arduous montage, there’s a brief respite at an oasis, merely a water well and a few skinny trees. The survival motif truly reaches harrowing levels after this, with some of the party dying before they leave the desert. One of these death scenes, in particular, is beautifully composed while heartbreaking and all by itself redeems the slow build-up. At this point, Weir’s characters have earned our investment in their journey, but, sadly, the reward for our patience is their agony and demise. There’s a good 30 minutes of careful, commendable filmmaking here.
These concatenate sheddings of mortal coils and catharses are aided by some artful and ghastly makeup. With each passing scene, the characters become dirtier, more ragged, their skin more bleached and almost yellow, their faces blistered so greatly you can almost see the underlying muscle and bone. Their legs begin to retain water and swell at the ankles, making footwear painful. Their bodies are slowly becoming adverse to water so they have to suck it in small quantities through cloth. They begin to resemble corpses, rotting with each footstep. They are dying in the midst of dazzling landscapes. Weir alternates tight close-ups of withering visages with distant shots of figures drifting, hunched, burdened by their own bodies. An earlier and almost exuberant scene at Lake Baikal contains a shot that resembles the dancing party that closes The Seventh Seal, but in the desert these horizons no longer intimate boundlessness, but fealty to nature.
Saoirse Ronan seems especially good here, though I don’t know how difficult it is to play starving and desperate, especially with all that wonderful makeup to aid you. I think it’s more Weir’s doing. Incredibly, he writes little sexual undercurrent into these scenes. In a situation where it’s expected that these men would try to take advantage of a young girl, Weir paints them with disinterest, then fraternal interest and eventually devotion. They warmly pick over the portraits made by Tomasz, the artist of the group, naming their favorites. They come to regard the girl as a kind of madonna, as if their mission has become inextricably tied with the fate of the girl. Everyone plays the role of father or older brother, never contemplating crime. The strength of these desert scenes is propelled by this regard, this insistence on life when it seems the only thing worth insisting on is food and a warm bed.
The ending is curious. I like the novelty of it. A device right out of old Hollywood or maybe even Looney Tunes, a soldier’s boots are superimposed walking over a cascade of popular images of the postwar 20th century. The sense is one of Janusz continuing his trek even as all of these major events unfold in time—not only does it add a dash of Homer to his journey but it supplants his personal journey with a vaster one, albeit one little related to the events we’ve seen in the film. A bold idea, but one that doesn’t make a great deal of sense given the film’s intimate focus up until now; if instead it were images of Janusz growing older, prosaic as that may be, it may have been rewarding.
While there are things to like scattered in every portion of the film, The Way Back doesn’t have a very powerful narrative arc. Gallipoli has a hasty conclusion that reinforces its opening salvo of themes and makes you forget how pleasurably meandering it is; I think the same can be said of this trek through Asia. It becomes a literal guilt trip. What’s really valuable here is in the middle, in the framing of struggle, and then not nearly so much for the vision itself but for the emotions on display and those bubbling beneath an often turgid surface.