The Way Back does something different with the way it tells its trek. Most movies will show the landscape in a majestic sweeping fashion. It will make the journey seem like an adventure. In this film, the land is a vicious opponent.
Seven men escape from a prison in the Soviet Union in the early 1940s. They are quiet determined men who are willing to travel as far as it takes to get their freedom. Even when they are held by cruel captors, their only true enemy is the weather. The soldiers have guns and can order them to the mines, but they really feel the pain when they have to battle the frigid weather and the vast forest that surrounds them.
Janusz (Jim Sturgess) is the unofficial leader of the group. His wife informed on him and he was sent from Poland to be imprisoned in Siberia. Ed Harris plays the lone American named Mr. Smith. Colin Farrell is more of a wildcard as a jumpy Russian named Valka. Eventually they meet a secretive young girl played by Saoirse Ronan who is also on the run.
Director Peter Weir tells this incredible story while remaining surprisingly constrained. The leads do not say much and the more sentimental moments remain small and personal. The film plays more like a horrifying story than a crowd-pleaser. There are only a few moments when is a bit too obvious with his visual techniques, including one scene when the Janusz realizes how animalistic their group has become because they are eating away at meat like the wolves they just shooed away.
There are no montages to show time, but just relentless scenes of the actors walking and walking. These people battle the harshest environments imaginable ranging from an endless desert to the Himalayan Mountains. This is what tests these people. There are no power struggles within the group or real fear of being recaptured. The strength and hope of humanity is constantly being challenged and it becomes an exhausting journey. Every terrain leads to a new frightening experience that is limited on food and water. The length of this film really plays up how long this journey was and anything shorter would compromise the impressiveness.
There are plenty of conflicting reports to whether or not this tale and the memoir are true. Whether the film is taken as fact or fiction, what remains is a very compelling story that avoids the usual clichés and shows an adventure that no one will ever want to replicate.