In the 1940’s, a group of political prisoners escaped a Siberian gulag and trekked over 4000 miles to India, through unforgiving tundra forests, over harsh desert sands, and eventually over the snowy peaks of the Himalayas. Only three would finish the journey. This was documented in Slavomir Rawicz’s bestselling memoir The Long Walk. Peter Weir, who hasn’t sat in the director’s chair since 2003’s Master and Commander, brings the arduous slog to life. And I mean to life, with vast sweeping shots of the various vistas the men must tromp across telling more in their Boschian postcard silence than any sort of narration. Weir takes a dynamic cast and hauls them through the bowels of hell. If anything, the film’s almost like a historical epic horror story, with the landscape acting as the slasher picking off the survivors one by one. It manages to be poignant without being overly sentimental, dramatic without relying on too much speechifying or rah rah speeches, and ends on what should have seemed like a blindly blatant melodramatic touch but instead just leaves your heart crushed in the rib cage. Because of the nature of the endless journeyquest, the film’s bound to feel overlong, but otherwise, it’s a devastating look at a truly heroic escape into the wild. To heap accolades on Aron Ralston and Christopher McCandless, and then to cast something this gorgeous and touching into the vast wilderness of January demonstrates purely how fucked the studio system is.
Janusz (Jim Sturgess, 21) is a Polish dissident, sent to the gulag after his wife testifies under torture that she witnessed him speaking against Stalin. I worried that film was going to fall into the ol’ prisoner motif quickly: a grizzled old American named Smith (Ed Harris), a friendly actor who turns out to be turncoat (Mark Strong), a psychotic Russian gangster named Valka (Colin Farrell), and the rest of the motley gang. But since the film is more about the trek out of Siberia rather than the actual incarceration, Weir and co-writer Keith Clarke do a splendid job of using the hellacious conditions as a cannon rather than a cannonball weighing down the plot with exposition. Instead, seven prisoners bolt into the snowy night, aiming to make it 1000 kilometers past a lake and over the Transsiberian railroad into Mongolia and supposed freedom.
Now from the beginning you know that only three men make it to India, so you quickly realize that a) a bunch of these prisoners are going to die along the way and b) getting to Mongolia is not going to be far enough. This seems like it would suck much of the drama out of the plot, but Weir is a grizzled veteran himself and knows how to keep the pacing and drama stoked. While you think the other four characters are going to be cannon fodder, particularly when the weakest of them dies immediately, Weir saves their backstories for the trip. So rather than bogging us down at the beginning of the story, the characters get fleshed out as they start withering away to skeletons physically. And again, we go from sketched characterizations — the artist/cook Tomasz (Alexandru Potocean), the former priest Voss (Gustaf Skarsgard), the “funny man” Zoran (Dragos Bucur) — into fully realized men with secrets and shadows all their own. It makes us realize that just because you happen to be a marquee star doesn’t necessarily mean you’re making it to the end of this trip.
The acting is wonderful, not so much for the accents as the sheer wasting away physically. As they march along on this death trek, they fall apart. From frostbite, to sunburn, to dehydration and starvation, it always shows on their faces and bodies. With rotted teeth, faces peeling and bloody, lips cracked from parching, these men don’t cross the finish line so much as limp with swollen feet and missing toes and collapse in a bloody broken heap. Colin Farrell has a plum role as Valka, bounding around with jarring energy and mischief. Telling you Ed Harris good is like saying the sun came out today. Even in some of the shit films I’ve seen, he puts in solid performances. You keep expecting him to be the hero, to snatch the reins of leadership and solider everyone forward. He’s actually a crotchety liability, and it’s a pretty impressive role. And since the last time he paired with Weir, he was able to get an Oscar nomination, it’s not a bad move. (Granted, it was The Truman Show, but fuck you, it’s Ed Harris.) Jim Sturgess is actually able to carry the film, not relying on a heroic jut to his chin but an almost weak desperation to make it. He’s not the dog dragging little Timmy out of the well, he’s the tortoise constantly plodding forward. And I would be remiss if I left out the turn by Saorise Ronan as Irena, a piteous refugee they pick up along the way. Everyone’s always talking up Dakota Fanning and Chloe Moretz, but for my money, you can’t find a better young actress working today than her.
But the real star of the film is the visuals. This is why you own the high-definition television and the Blu-ray player. The landscape is as much a character as anyone else, and Weir romanticizes it with huge sweeping shots that wouldn’t be out of place on Sierra Club calendars. Since these prisoners spend so much time in each environment, Weir finds new ways of keeping the backgrounds in the foreground, from interesting tracking shots to camera angles. And he’s a damn sucker for the “Lawrence of Arabia” shots: the long massive faraway shots of spaced out speck travelers moving along through sweeping vistas. But it’s also in the makeup. As I said, these characters are eroded by nature, weathered and worn down like a favorite pair of jeans and with just as many patches and holes. It’s a PG-13 film, and yet this is some of the most horrific effects I’ve ever seen on screen.
I can’t figure why the studio would jettison something this picturesque and touching in the forgotten realms of January. The Way Back deserves better, but will be such a limited venture and swept up in the Oscar rambles come next week, it’s a damn shame. Granted, a two hour plus trek through regions of Asia most folks would be hard pressed to find on a map may be a difficult sell to audiences seeking lighter fare, but that’s no reason to disrespect such a talented cast and the virtual resurrection of a lost talent like Weir. Never mind that it’s actually based on a true story about three men who actually (allegedly) made the trek. But do yourself a favor and try to catch this in theatres so you can appreciate the sheer scope of the cinematography. Because it’s finally worth the ticket price.