It has been nine years since director Gavin O'Connor made his last sports movie, the manfully sad "estranged brothers coping with their father's alcholism" epic Warrior, but he still feels (to me, anyway) first and foremost like a sports movie director. This is at least in part because those nine years haven't been full of career-defining work: a few TV movies, a couple of pilots (including for The Americans, which is probably the most prominent thing he's done since Warrior) and only two features, both released in 2016: the unloved, cursΓ©d flop Jane Got a Gun, and the thriller The Accountant, which was a pretty decent-sized hit, though not one that I've heard a solitary soul talk about in all of the years since.

All of which is to say that The Way Back feels a bit like a homecoming, and even more like an attempt to quietly pretend that the last nine years didn't happen, and just to continue puttering away in the exact same vein as Warrior: offer precisely zero surprises in making a character drama/sports movie hybrid, one that hews with ritualistic fidelity to the beats of its genre. Two genres, in fact! For while Warrior merely had a recovering alcoholic father as a supporting character, The Way Back has a not-so-recovering alcoholic protagonist, and so it follows the only slightly less ossified beats of the alcoholism melodrama alongside the underdog sports plot. It wrinkles things a bit by not letting the work of coaching his team to a surprising chain of improbable victories "cure" its main character, for the film ends up being much more of a character drama about alcoholism into which a sports movie has been nestled, rather than a sports movie about an alcoholic man, and part of its urgently sincere attempt to depict addiction for what it is means that our hero gets no easy way out of his spiral, and most work and claw his way towards redemption rather than simply fall into it. Still, you can see shape of the thing coming pretty far in advance.

I'll have more to say about that nestled-in plot, but first, I want to give you the summary of all the above: The Way Back is basically if The Bad News Bears was monomaniacally opposed to fun. O'Connor's thing isn't bright, sunshiny movies, and neither is screenwriter Brad Ingelsby's, so the fact that The Way Back would take itself extremely seriously comes as no surprise; still, the insistence with which the film is a serious, morbid slog caught me off guard. There is not a glimmer of light anywhere inside of it - I mean this literally. Eduard Grau's cinematography is dominated by shadowy lighting, even finding a way to make the inside of a high school gymnasium lit for a basketball game feel solemn and hushed. And that's got nothing on Rob Simonsen's musical score, packed with minor keys and slow melodies and weeping strings.

It is, to cut to the chase, oppressively solemn, and while I get that a movie about a self-destructive drunk whose family can barely stand him was never going to be a lightweight frolic (I mean, it could be, but that's not how this one was ever going to turn out), there is still that whole thing where the middle of the film has a rag-tag group of high school outcasts start racking up win after win. And even that feels dirgelike, between the music and the way that the film chops all of those games into little underlit fragments, and builds all of the footage we do see around Ben Affleck's glumly desperate performance as the main character. Without any real shifts in tone, it becomes increasingly hard to credit the moments of his greatest suffering and self-loathing as any really different than the cautiously optimistic ones.

That being said, given what the film is and what it asks of him, Affleck is quite good in the movie. He plays Jack Cunningham, once the star basketball player at Bishop Hayes High School; he has since become an isolated, hostile working class nobody, a disappointment to his estranged wife (Janina Gavankar) and an object of contempt to his sister (Michael Watkins), who is convinced that he'll bring the whole family down with him if she doesn't single-handedly form a bulwark against his sloppy drunkenness. It is in this low state that he's offered the position coaching Bishop Hayes's current rudderless team, which has barely enough players to even officially exist; one gets the impression that he's nobody's first choice for the job, but taking on this responsibility at least gives him something to focus on besides how much he hates himself and is hated by others. And soon, his brusque manner, shorn of any patronising bullshit, has impressed the players enough that, dear God, don't make me spell it out.

Other than its unceasingly grim tone, the biggest shortcoming of The Way Back lies in the way it jams the basketball movie right into the middle of its deeply unsentimental addiction story. This is not a film that develops its narrative lines together, showing how the basketball team's growing success reflects in Jack's relationship with alcohol, whether directly (a sense of purpose makes it easier for him to give up drinking), nor as a contrast (his downward spiral continues, masked by his athletic victories). It's more like the initial character drama simply stops, turns into a basketball movie for about an hour, and then resumes once we're far enough along that the inevitable end point of the sports movie has been locked in. O'Connor's reputation might lay in sports dramas (before Warrior, there was Miracle), but he has in this case directed a movie that seems weirdly unhappy being about sports, indifferently wedging the events of a basketball season dispassionately into the middle of a different and much more successful movie.

And it is successful, as a character sketch; Affleck's performance is a little drab, but not in a way that harms the movie, and there's something heavy in the way he moves and hangs his head and coughs out words that makes for a bracing combination with the actor's move towards stocky middle age. The supporting cast is typically given very little to do, but the best of them (Watkins; Al Madrigal as Jack's assistant coach) inject a degree of brightness and lively emotion that form a good contrast with the foggy misery that Affleck pours into Jack. The omnipresent sullenness even suits this material, communicating something of the no-way-out pessimism of the protagonist's self-image, and sets us up for the thorniness of the film's fourth act (which takes a while to rev up from nothing), and its refusal to let Jack off the hook for his actions. It's just that this film would be absolutely every bit as good without the basketball material dominating the middle, and the basketball material isn't nearly interesting or effective enough to make up for that. One can imagine a version of The Way Back that's good, maybe even as powerful as it clearly wants to be, but the version we got is awfully lumpy and too damn monotonous.