At the Floradora on Telluride’s main street, Peter Weir was like the dauntless pilgrims of his great escape movie The Way Back, who incredibly fled Stalin’s Siberian gulag and trekked through Mongolia and the Himalayas to India in quest of freedom and eventual homecoming. OK, he was just racing to make his Elks Park panel on “Human/Nature,” but he had to pack a lunch and confront ambiguously dangerous strangers on the way – not Mongol horsemen, but journalists trying to stamp their views on his new movie.
This journo was flabbergasted by Cinematical’s view that The Way Back is the survival film “perhaps the most sadistically intent on making you feel as much of its subjects' physical agony as possible.” WHAT? Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, another fact-based survival film at Telluride involving James Franco’s character cutting off his arm with a dull knife, required ambulances to tend fainting viewers, and Cinematical gets woozy over The Way Back? Sure, it’s a sensually immersive rendition of a grueling, triumphant odyssey, but sadistic? Nobody I spoke with at the fest had anything like that reaction. It’s gripping, but there’s no wince factor for most average moviegoers.
The Way Back boasts epic scenes (unbelievably shot for $29 million) and iconic performances by Ed Harris as an American trapped in Stalin’s net, well-language-coached Colin Farrell as a ruthless Russian thug with a kind of morality and a startling but authentic reverence for his captors, Jim Sturgess as a young Polish soldier hurt into heroism, and Saoirse Ronan as a mysterious teen refugee who joins the fugitives. Her flight across perilous ice reminded me of Lillian Gish in Way Down East; Weir said he too found a silent-movie-era aura in Ronan’s character, but he was thinking of Russian film, and that famous Constructivist poster of a scarved woman with hand upraised shouting a Cyrillic word (“books!”). This movie takes you back to a World War II not much covered by Hollywood.
I pigeonholed Weir as the Poet of Mystery, which he said he didn’t mind. But with Master and Commander and much more with The Way Back, he’s taken a plunge into the poetry of realism. The flick bristles with the expertise he gleaned from a dozen-plus Gulag survivors, one escapee, and the not altogether reliable bestselling memoir The Long Walk. When the gang fights mosquito swarms with tree-bark collars, you know it really happened.
But reality messes with Weir’s gift in some ways. The characters, despite galvanic acting, are types rooted in real people, not always real-seeming. After a riveting, propulsive camp scene and snowstorm escape, after about an hour the trek feels like The Long Slog, frequently enlivened with bursts of drama but burdened with the inevitability of their successful destination. Weir doles out bits of character backstory to power the plot, like the escapees rationing the fish they carry in their knapsacks; it keeps us fed and moving, but one longs for the more ravishing repasts of Weir’s past, a wonderland of fiction untethered to fact. His responsibility to history weighs him down a bit.
Still, he gets there, by ingenuity, superhuman energy despite limited resources, and sheer force of personality.