Monday, November 15, 2010

The Way Back

Genre: Drama/Period
Premise: A rag-tag group of prisoners from a 1940 Siberian Prison Camp escape, only to find that escaping was the easy part. They now must traverse hundreds of miles through enemy territory to find freedom.
About: Due to its weighty subject matter, World War 2 setting, “based on a true story” credentials, and prestigious director (Peter Weir), many are picking “The Way Back,” which is already finished and will premiere at the end of the year, as an early Oscar contender. The film stars Colin Farrell, Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, and a bunch of unknowns. Weir was born in Australia where he made a handful of films before breaking through with the internationally praised Picnic at Hanging Rock, the true story of a group of students from an exclusive girls' school who mysteriously vanish from a school picnic on Valetine's Day in 1900. It’s considered the film that first put Australia on the international filmmaking map.
Writer: Peter Weir
Details: 132 pages – 2008 draft – Inspired by the book “The Long Walk” by Slavomir Rawicz (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

I’m a big Peter Weir fan. He’s one of the few big-budget directors who marches to the beat of his own drum. If you look at his filmography, he’s made some really interesting stuff. Films like Fearless and Dead Poets Society and The Mosquito Coast and The Truman Show. It can be hard to categorize his films and that’s refreshing in a world where every movie is prepackaged and presold to us before a single frame is shot.

Strangely, Weir’s been absent since his underrated (which, when you think about it, can be said of all his films) 2003 period piece, “Master and Commander.” While that film lacked any single great quality, it did just about everything well. I don’t know what Weir’s been doing for the past seven years, but he certainly hasn’t changed his approach to choosing material. The Way Back is a challenging story that isn't quite like anything you've seen before. 

The script starts out wonderfully. We meet a group of prisoners in a Soviet Labor Camp in the middle of World War 2. It’s the “Casablanca” of camps as you have captured soldiers from dozens of different countries all living together, including the U.S., Yugoslavia, China, Poland, and many others. Of equal importance to the prison’s make-up is the prison’s location. It’s in Siberia. I’ve never been to Siberia personally but I know that whenever anybody makes a reference to the middle of nowhere, Siberia’s usually the first analogy that comes up.

This puts our prisoners in a precarious situation. Even if they were to escape, where would they go?

But escape is exactly what our prisoners plan on doing. And it’s a motley cast of characters who make up the conspirators. There’s Valka, the gangster thief of the block. There’s Smith, an American who keeps to himself. There’s Kharbarov, an actor who was sent here after a controversial performance. There’s Zoran, the jokester. There’s Tomasz, the artist. And finally there’s Janusz, the young leader of the group, the one who’s determined to get out of here through hell or high water.

I ain’t going to lie. I was a little disappointed when I realized this wasn’t a jail break script – because that’s what it sets itself up to be. I thought we were going to get another “The Great Escape.” But our characters actually escape pretty early on, and the escape itself isn’t that difficult. You see, The Way Back isn’t about the escape, it’s about what happens after the escape.

When you’re out in the middle of Siberia, there aren’t a lot of places to go. You can follow the roads to the next town – however far away that is – but you’ve been told that there’s a price on the head of every escaped prisoner in these towns. So after some discussion about their predicament and location, they realize that the only country where they’re guaranteed to find safety is Tibet. Now like I mentioned, I never checked the map here, but my impression from their reactions was that Tibet was really fucking far away.

The Way Back is sort of a really sophisticated drama-heavy version of “Alive,” and if you’ve seen that film, you may be saying, “How the hell can you get more drama-heavy than a movie about a plane crash where the survivors start eating each other to stay alive?” Well read “The Way Back” and you’ll know.

We follow this group on a torturous journey through weather so cold your spit freezes before it hits the ground, through sand dunes, through mountains – basically any terrain that can’t be lived on. None of these men really know how to hunt or live off the land outside of a few isolated experiences, so they just kinda keep moving, getting weaker and thinner in their pursuit of Tibet.

There are no gimmicks here. Nobody eats each other. They don’t join the allied lines and become heroes. It’s just a story about survival. A very straightforward story about survival.

I think what’s most disappointing about The Way Back is that neither the characters nor the relationships between the characters is ever explored in any depth. Rarely do these guys talk about who they are or what their lives are like or what their aspirations are or what their philosophies are. A few give us the barest essentials about their past. But I’d be hard pressed to say I knew one character here on anything more than a surface level. I’m not asking for boring on-the-nose dialogue where a character mumbles on for 20 minutes about how his daddy left home when he was four, but this is a 130 page screenplay where the majority of time is spent following a group of people walking. If they’re not talking, getting into their lives, their problems, their flaws, their dreams, their goals, their secrets…how are we expected to care about them?

If there is an exception, it’s Janusz, whose bare essentials backstory is interesting even in its one-sentence soundbite form (He was arrested for being a spy, for which they tortured and killed his wife). I tend to like any character who’s active and leads and has a strong goal and who is sympathetic. Janusz is all these things, a man who would walk through a mountain on two broken legs as long as he was still drawing breath. It’s hard not to get caught up in his drive. But even with that drive, I still couldn’t tell you three things about Janusz after the script was over.

This lack of depth dribbles into the relationships between the characters as well. There’s virtually no conflict inside the group. When a choice is made, pretty much everyone agrees with it. You have a scary character in Valka, the Gangster, yet he turns into a docile puppy once they’re on the road. No real friendships form, and even those that do (between a girl and Smith) seem to evaporate as soon as they’re introduced.  It’s like Weir is challenging us to accept the blasé nature of this group dynamic.

And I’m sure the argument is that the conflict isn't supposed to be man vs man, it's supposed to be man vs. nature. That’s what this is about.  Guys going up against the universe's most lethal force - nature itself.  My only problem with that is, we’ve seen straight-forward “man vs. nature” movies before. I don’t think this is different enough to keep our interest.

Where this really starts to hurt the story is in the second half.  Because the interpersonal dynamic between the characters is so nonexistent, the only thing left to titillate us is the plot. And the plot has our characters, walking, looking for food, dying, walking, looking for food, dying, walking, looking for food, dying, wash rinse repeat wash rinse repeat.  It's extremely repetitive.  The only thing that changes is the locations (snow, desert, mountain), so by the end, we feel like the record is scratched, playing the same few notes over and over again.

If the script has something going for it, it’s that universal theme we can all relate to – Freedom. It may be the most valued commodity on this planet next to air. Watching our characters stare death in the eye in pursuit of this commodity does have a dramatic punch, technically speaking. I mean, despite my above complaints, the story has a very clear drive – Make it to Tibet – and that’s more than I can say for a lot of scripts I read. I just think Weir became so obsessed with that drive, he overlooked a lot of the character stuff.

The Way Back has a great opening act and is an intriguing story of survival against all odds, but its second half isn’t as good as its first. There were too many scenes where no required story information or character development were introduced, giving the story a feeling like not enough was happening. I’ll watch it in theaters because it’s Weir but I think this script has a lot of flaws.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: This is essentially a road trip film, albeit a bleak one, and one of the keys to making road trip films work is to mix in enough interesting and varying obstacles to keep the journey fresh. Everything that happens to this group is too similar (walk, eat, die, walk, eat, die), particularly in the second half, and as a result, it loses us.