Directed By Gavin O’ Connor
Starring – Ben Affleck, Janina Gavankar, Michaela Watkins
The Plot – A former HS basketball phenom (Affleck), struggling with alcoholism, is offered a coaching job at his alma mater. As the team starts to win, he may have a reason to confront his old demons. But will it be enough to set him on the road to redemption?
Rated R for adult language throughout including some sexual references
– Ben is back. Once in a while we get one of these stoic performances from Affleck that reminds us that with the right role he can be one of the very best going, and his role as Jack here does just that with the kind of dramatic intensity that creeps up on us. This evidently seems like an art imitating life kind of role for Affleck, who himself has struggled with his own alcoholic demons in his own personal life, and fought back time and time again against the odds that have knocked him down, but never fully out. The subdued fire that burns inside of his character is full of enough anger, regret, and sorrow that often make for a lethal combination, but one that more so hurts himself rather than other people, and with Ben’s committed approach to the role, it very much feels like he and Jack simultaneously are able to fight their way back from the perils of the bottle that have defined each of their respective careers.
– Intimate direction. One of my favorite aspects of Gavin’s style of directing is immersing us so closely into the story and characters that we often forget that we’re watching something fictional transpire. In this regard, it comes in the form of a soft color pallet and handheld cinematography style from Eduard Grau, that often puts us in the shoes as a living, breathing character within this world because of its unabashed desire for tight, claustrophobic angles of proximity that never allow us freedom for what takes shape dramatically. O’Connor’s films always have a ringing endorsement for a conflicted protagonist, and that continues in Jack, a man so tortured by his past that he turns to anything to help subdue that pain, only causing himself more torture because of such. The overall presentation for the film sometimes feels documentary-esque for its total lack of glitz known from Hollywood capture, and it’s always been that stripped-down, bare-bones approach from the director that I’ve admired most about his films.
– Game sequences. When we are treated to some action on the basketball court, the games are shot in an easy to depict manner that makes it easy to follow all of the action that transpires on the floor. The editing is reserved, letting the young actors show off their talents to harvest that edge of believability, and not over complicating what should be single take movements of game action in real time. In addition to this, the many angles in and around the various gymnasiums allow the echoing of sound design from the crowds to influence our audibility in the same way that it does a player who is playing in a hostile environment, and this element captures much about the games that lesser-helmed films leave off of the screenplay all together. It articulates the passionate environment of a high school crowd seamlessly, and proves that the production did a strong job in replicating their experiences for a big screen rendering without sacrificing anything that makes the sport stand out.
– Musical mentality. Another interesting element of the film’s production comes from Rob Simonsen, the musical composer for the film, who crafts his numbers to mirror that of what’s going on inside of Jack’s cold demeanor. Rob seems to have a lot of influence from fellow composer Trent Reznor, who also uses a lot of increasing volume intensity and soft classical piano to illustrate the unnerve of the dire situation. It gives us an audible sense into the film’s protagonist that we otherwise wouldn’t feel privy to because of his abstract personality that feels reserved at all times, and allows us to interpret what is taking place on-screen in the same timing and manner that Jack is doing so.
– Layered storytelling. Easily my favorite aspect of the film is O’Connor’s style of storytelling that flows naturally and reveals itself during the most spontaneous moments of interaction between characters. The script takes some unpredictable turns in its character exposition of Jack that I wasn’t expecting, but reveals so in a way that is patient and forth-coming with each moment that he spends with a pivotal person from his past. Most noticeably is the big reveal between he and a former love interest that not only vibrantly illustrated the reason for their separation, but also told us everything that we needed to know about Jack’s emerging alcoholism, which serves as his lone antagonist for the film. What’s unique about this unlike other addiction-battling films is that it shows us the effect first, and then gives us the cause. It’s one of the many nuanced reveals that Gavin deposits smoothly, and keeps it from ever feeling forced or exposition-heavy for the intention of the scene.
– Jack’s disposition. The film has several unique measures how it elaborates that Jack is a fully functioning alcoholic. None of which require him stumbling or tripping over himself because of his abuse of the product, but rather a few revealing sight gags that illustrate the level of severity that we’re dealing with here. One scene involves Jack one-by-one blowing through a case of beer until not a single can remains in his fridge, one scene involves the local bartender of the bar that Jack goes to calling him by name and getting his drink of choice ready every single time, and one scene even shows the easiness of availability that Jack has at attaining his release when life gets too loud. What’s refreshing about this is it never treats his alcoholism as anything other than a poisoning problem that constantly persists inside of his system, instead of the melodramatic destruction case that other movies centering around alcoholism unabashedly depict. This is an alcoholic at a specific stage in his disease, and through several instances that the movie points to, we find that society and the way matters are structured play a pivotal hand in why he’s able to keep this routine going.
– Familiar tropes. I’ve been hearing non-stop that this film takes different approaches to its level of sports storytelling, and with the exception of the film’s final ten minutes, which only deviate in the form of what happens to its central protagonist, everything else is cloaked in a layer of familiarity that made everything easily predictable for my investment into the picture. This really isn’t spoiling anything if you’ve seen even one underdog sports movie, but as usual the team loses the first game miserably under Jack’s coaching takeover, the kids are troubled youths whose saving grace is the game they play, there’s an asshole coach on the best team in the league, who (Surprise, surprise) is the team’s final game of the season, and a third act breakup revolving around their coach’s inner demons. It’s all a greatest hits of other, better movies before it, and even in 2020 when sports genre films should be exploring different avenues of originality, we are still getting the same lukewarm ideas that saturated this film spoiled about twenty years ago.
– Underwritten characterization. Outside of Jack, who is obviously the film’s main character, the rest of the characters, including the players on the team themselves, are tragically underwritten to the point that I didn’t invest in them the way the movie wanted me to. Sure, there is a scene here or there when we talk to a kid’s parent, but no interaction with the kids themselves, including anything off of the court that would better flesh out their respective personalities. Why this hurts is because it limits us the audience from witnessing them growing as a team, and makes their inevitable transformation feel unwarranted from what little has been documented in the scope of the lens.
– Limited game time. I can understanding speeding through games in a montage sequence when the team eventually gets better midway through the movie, but to not show anything from the team’s first two games causes a series of unnecessary problems in our indulgence of the team that deserved the time required to defuse it. For my money, the first game of any underdog story is the most important because only then do you grip how truly flawed their team really is, and the kind of job needed for Jack’s unenthused takeover. On top of this, showing the team in their weakest moments also makes the transformation all the more inspiring once they do reach their peak level, but instead we are told constantly instead of shown that this team is bad, and then asked to believe they are playoff contenders all because a coach comes along. Once again, if we get some player interaction, then we can see his effect on each individual player, but without it we are left to fill in the blanks and just believe that one man not actually playing in the game can change everything.
– First act hook. The first twenty minutes of this film was the hardest sell in terms of my investment into this plot. Mainly, this is because the first act is really just about setting the stage for who Jack is, and depicting him as a man with a lot of demons in and outside of the bottle that have shaped his life for the very isolated presence we see before us. This is good because it creates a lot of intrigue for how the man got this way, but in terms of paced first acts, it’s easily the weakness of the movie for me, and took a bit longer than I was anticipating before I started clutching onto the meaty material of the movie’s central themes.
My Grade: 6/10 or C