Peter Weir's The Way Back enters the canon of survival films as perhaps the most sadistically intent on making you feel as much of its subjects' physical agony as possible. Despite its impeccable awards pedigree and prestige pic status, it may be too straight-up harrowing to get much traction, either with the Academy voters or at the box office. For those with the fortitude to take the plunge, it offers an intense, morally thorny exploration of the limits of human endurance.
Weir, the great Australian director of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli, and The Truman Show, is notoriously selective with his projects, and makes a film a couple times a decade. This purportedly true story, based on the ghostwritten memoir of Slavomir Rawicz (called The Long Walk, not to be confused with the great early Stephen King novella), obviously means a lot to Weir, and the movie gleams with painstaking effort. According to Rawicz, he and his companions escaped a Siberian gulag in 1940 and crossed the continent due south – on foot, armed with a single knife and one sack's worth of food – to emerge from the Himalayas into India in 1941.
The veracity of Rawicz's account has been widely questioned, but no matter – true stories rarely make great movies anyhow. The Way Back rockets forward with the urgency and authenticity of real life. It begins in Soviet-occupied Poland, as a military officer named Janusz (the film's stand-in for Rawicz, played by the young English actor Jim Sturgess) is interrogated and then sent to Siberia after his wife is tortured into incriminating him. One of the year's most powerful scenes, this stunner of an opening telegraphs the film's merciless, unflinching approach. There's no physical violence on the screen, but Weir punches us in the gut simply by training his camera on Janusz's face as his eyes fill with fear, which turns to horror and then anger.
The gulag is torture. Desperately malnourished men fell trees in the brutal cold or slave in poisonous gold mines. The guards inform them that it is not fences, guards, guns or dogs that make up their prison, but the murderous snow-swept isolation of Siberia. Inspired by a fellow political prisoner (Mark Strong) who latter turns out to be all talk, Janusz quickly hatches a plot to cut the electrical wire and, during a snowstorm that will cover their tracks, hoof it thousands of kilometers south to Lake Baikal. A subset of the few prisoners who have retained some semblance of a will to live – including an American expat (Ed Harris), a Russian hooligan with Stalin's face tattooed on his chest (Colin Farrell), a priest (Gustaf Skarsgard), an artist (Alexandru Potocean), and a teenage boy (Sebastian Urzendowsky) – come along. Uncommonly terse title cars at the beginning of the film inform us that only three men ultimately make it to India.
The first half of The Way Back is Peter Weir at his hypnotic best. Always adept at breathing life into landscapes – see the frightening outback vistas of Gallipoli, the mythic Central American jungle of The Mosquito Coast, and even the idyllic false suburbia of The Truman Show – Weir all but personifies Siberia and (later) the Mongolian desert. They seem threateningly to keep pace with our human protagonists. The snow-covered trees and scorching sand dunes become the terrain of an alien planet. The mines of the gulag are a steam-spitting horrorshow scarier than anything in The Lord of the Rings. The film is extraordinary at seeing these places as its characters would; even the sweeping bird's-eye views seem like an expression of their fear.
The men's flight poses moral dilemmas. Colin Farrell's hardened, cynical hooligan suggests, to Janusz's horror, that the advantage of having recruited a half-dozen fellow travelers is that they will have something to eat when things get rough. They encounter a helpless teenage girl (Saoirse Ronan), similarly on the run and wonder if they can afford to save her life. People start dying. When someone is clinging to his last breaths and can no longer move, at what point do you forsake hope and tend to those who still have a chance?
All of this makes for an intense, unpleasant experience. This is particularly true in the last hour, which depicts an unremitting fight for survival and turns rather mechanical and repetitive in the process. It becomes, essentially, a series of obstacles and milestones: nomads, thirst, the desert, a sandstorm; Mongolia, China, Tibet. The moral ambiguity drains from the film, and Weir's artistry seems to take a back seat to depicting the men's ordeal in as much horrifying, you-are-there detail as possible. Which is engaging and gut-wrenching, but not quite as interesting.
The Way Back brings a lot of talent and a tremendous amount of craft to a movie that will be too painful for most people to endure. There is nothing reassuring about it; no triumph-of-the-human-spirit comfort. The story of these men is "inspiring," but only in the grimmest possible way. The film suggests that it's always darkest just before the dawn – if the dawn comes at all.