THE WAY BACK
NOTE: This spoiler was submitted by SarahEllenC
Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) is a backbreaking laborer on a construction site. He is isolated and withdrawn as he works. We see him drinking a coffee while he takes a smoke break. When the workday is over, he gets into his pickup truck and opens a cooler full of canned beer in the back seat.
He then pours the beer into his coffee cup he was using earlier during his smoke break. After he prepares his drink, he is ready for his commute home.
We see him at a neighborhood bar with a beer later on in the evening. Then as he showers the next day before work, we see an open beer can in front of him, sitting in the caddy hanging from the showerhead.
It is Thanksgiving Day, and Jack is at the liquor store. As he is checking out, he is recognized by an old friend (Sal). Sal asks him what he’s doing for Thanksgiving. He asks Jack if he is doing anything with his family.
Jack politely yet casually says no and gives some brushed off reason.
Later that day, Jack shows up at his sister’s house. He walks in late but happily hugs and greets everyone: his brother-in-law, niece, and nephew, and his mother. “Uncle Jack” is beloved by his family. As soon as he sits down at the table, he opens a beer can. His sister (Beth) walks in and snidely says most people call when they are going to be late. Jack says he doesn’t have his cell phone. She responds under her breath but within earshot with, “why have a cell phone if you’re not going to use it?”
After dinner, Jack tucks his nephew into bed and tells him a story about when Beth innocently gave their pet fish a bubble bath by pouring bubbles into its bowl when they were kids.
Later, Jack and Beth are alone in the kitchen. He says he is glad that she took in their mother. She asks him if he is seeing anyone. She says she doesn’t like that he is alone. She says Angie is worried about him. Angie is Jack’s wife, but they are separated. Jack is surprised and confused that Angie called Beth to ask about him rather than call him directly. Beth mentions that her friend, Kathy Collins, told her (Beth) that she sees Jack’s truck at Harold’s bar every night. Jack is angry at the interrogation and insinuation. He insults Kathy Collins for being fat.
Then he says, “that’s why I don’t come here!” He leaves the conversation after he finds out which of Beth’s 20 bedrooms he can stay in that night. We see him calling Angie from the bedroom and leaving her a voice mail. He says he is calling her because he knows she asked Beth about him and that he still has the same phone number from when they were married.
Jack comes home the next day and listens to his messages. The first one is from his friend (Miguel), inviting him to his son’s birthday party. The second message is from Father Divine, the principal from his old high school.
Jack goes to his high school, Bishop Hayes, and is recognized immediately and greeted warmly by a school administrator. She walks him to Father Divine’s office and says how excited everyone is to have him back.
Jack’s eyes get big as he wonders what that means. He walks around Father Divine’s office and sees a trophy case on the wall. There is a basketball jersey and awards inside.
Jack recognizes them as his own, and the engraving of his name on the case confirms it.
Father Divine walks in, and they sit to talk. He says he appreciates Jack making the drive to meet with him. Jack says he hasn’t been in town since his father’s funeral. Father Divine asks if he’s married and if he has kids. Jack says he is separated and has no kids.
Father Divine tells Jacks that their basketball coach had a heart attack. The coach survived but his wife doesn’t want him to return to coaching.
Father Divine tells Jack that he was the first person he thought of to replace him. He tells Jack that their next game is in a couple of days so it’s an urgent situation. Jack asks if the team is any good. Father Divine tells him no and that they haven’t even made the playoffs since Jack played. Jack tells him that he’s never coached before and he hasn’t played in years. Jacks says he is very busy and tells him no.
Father Divine tells him to think about it.
We see Jack in his apartment, drinking a beer and practicing all of the different things he plans to say to Father Divine about why he can’t coach the basketball team. He rehearses his excuses while holding up his cell phone to his ear with phrases of “it’s not the right time,” “I’ve been away from the game for so long,” and “I don’t think I can help you.” He drinks beer after beer while he repetitively practices his lines. “I’m not Michael Jordan,” he says to himself. And then, a few beers later, he reconsiders it and says “maybe.”
Eventually, we see he has finished the entire case. He is still rehearsing what he is going to say but now he is slurring his speech. “I just have no interest in coaching your f*cking basketball team and that’s all there is to it,” he says before passing out on the couch.
The next morning Jack wakes up and has a beer in the shower. We see him later entering his high school gym. He looks at the pennants on the wall. The most current pennant is from the year he graduated.
There is another special single pennant honoring Jack and his number.
We see the team of 10 guys practicing. Dan is the Assistant Coach and an algebra teacher. He is a straight laced guy. He is running the practice and introduces himself to Jack. Jack wonders why there are so few basketball players practicing. He says when he played here, there were over 100 guys trying to get on the team. Dan tells Jack that he played there too, a couple of years behind Jack, and that he remembers how hard it was to make it on the team. Jack and Dan continue to watch the players practice while Dan briefs Jack on some of the players’ stats, styles, and colorful personality traits.
Dan lines the players up so Jack can make his introductions. Jack singles out certain players and their 3 point statistics.
Out of 130 attempts, their current star player (Marcus) only made 34 shots. In contrast, a low key player (Bobby) made 25 (3 point shots) out of 40 attempts. Jack talks to the team in a way they’ve never heard before. They are listening. This is the most alert we have seen Jack.
After the practice, Dan gives Jack the keys to the office, game balls, and a flash drive of current sets they run. Jack asks Dan why he didn’t take the Head Coach job. Dan says his mother has MS and doesn’t have time for it. Jack asks Dan what is the dress code for the game.
Dan says the dress code for the head coach is a coat and tie.
Before his first game, Jack checks his closet and finds his one jacket crumpled up in a box on the floor.
From Jack’s office, we can hear the crowded gym. We see he is wearing his jacket, and he nervously pops a half of a container of tic tacs into his mouth as he hits the court.
Father Whalen is also an assistant and is sitting with the team on the sidelines. He introduces himself to Jack and asks him how he is doing.
“F*ck, I’m as nervous as sh#t!” Jack answers. Bishop Hayes loses the game 67-31.
After the game, we see Jack at Harold’s bar drinking happily and telling his buddies dirty jokes.
Later on, when Jack is stumbling drunk, his old friend, Doc, helps him home.
Jack drinks a beer in his morning shower the next day, and while driving to work, he pours hard liquor into his coffee thermos.
We see him coaching another basketball game. He is frustrated and sitting on the side lines. The team suffers another terrible loss.
That night, at home, he listens to his messages. The first message is Miguel, again, reminding Jack about his son’s birthday party that’s coming up. The second message is from Angie. She left a message saying that she is going to be close by for a meeting with a client tomorrow and asks him if he would like to meet.
The next day they meet for lunch. Jack asks Angie if she likes her new job. She says it pays the bills. She knows about his coaching position and seems happy for him. He jokes that it would be better if they won a game. He asks her why she is worried about him. She says that he sees the world in dark ways, and she wishes he would move on in his life. He asks her if she is moving on in her life. She looks down. Jack knows what that means. “What’s his name?” Jack asks. He asks how they met and how long ago. She answers his questions and admits that she wanted to be the one to tell him. She didn’t want him to hear it from their friends.
He is completely blindsided. She says Miguel called her and told her that he hasn’t heard back from Jack yet about his son’s birthday party. She asks Jack is he is planning to go. He is quiet and still upset. She says to let her know and that they can go together.
She walks away. He sits alone with his head in his hands.
Later that night, we see him doing shots at Harold’s Bar with his buddies. Not long afterwards we see him stumbling drunk and assisted by Doc, helping him into his apartment again.
The next basketball game is an away game, and the bus is waiting. Dan tells Jack that Kenny is missing. Kenny is a smooth and charming lady killer. Jack finds him talking with a girl in the stairwell. Jack interrupts him and takes him to the bus. On the way, Jack tells him that he better not get caught by Father.
The team hosting Bishop Hayes for this away game is one fancy operation. Their gym is new and modern. Their bleachers are full of enthusiastic fans. Everyone is color coordinated and chanting. Their cheerleaders are spiffy. Even their pompoms are sparkling.
The hosting team’s coach talks to Dan alone as the players get warmed up. He jokes to Dan that he is surprised that he can get Jack out of the bar long enough to coach. Dan says nothing.
Jack arrives at the game and introduces himself to the opposing team’s coach. “Good luck,” Jack tells him. “You take the luck,” the other coach answers with sickening overconfidence.
The game isn’t going well for Bishop Hayes. They are playing sloppily. The other team is playing like a bunch of professional NBA stars in comparison.
At a time out, Jack yells at his team that they are playing like a bunch of f*cking p*ssies. He says that he will not coach a team that’s been out-toughed. He encourages them to play aggressively and inspires them with his own fire.
The players return to the court with huge moves and noticeable confidence. After a flagrant foul is called on Bishop Hayes, Jack cheers them on proudly. “I’m feeling a comeback!” he says to the team later during another time out. Despite the encouragement, Bishop Hayes loses 72-38.
On the bus ride home, Father Whalen sits behind Jack. Father Whalen takes the opportunity to tell Jack about the code of conduct Bishop Hayes enforces, which includes language. He tells Jack that it is more important that the players develop into men of integrity and faith rather than it is to win games. Jack asks him that with all of the more important things going on in the world, does he really think Christ gives a sh#t about what he says to these kids. Father Whalen tells him that he does think Christ gives a sh#t.
Later that night, as they are walking to their cars, Dan talks to Jack about some empty beer cans that he found in his office while he was helping a student with his contact lens.
“Don’t let it happen again,” Dan cautions. Jack says, no problem.
Jack drives to Harold’s Place. He pensively sits in his truck parked right outside the front door. He drives away.
Jack comes to the next practice with plans and plays for the team. He introduces what he calls the diamond press to the guys. In the middle of explaining his new plans, Marcus shows up late for practice. He is 4 minutes late and nonchalant about it. Jack punishes him by telling Marcus that he’s not playing the next game.
When Marcus responds with an even louder bad attitude, Jacks kicks him off of the team for good.
At the next game, the score is tied. There is a bad call on Bishop Hayes. “Bullsh#t! God damn it!” Jack yells. He turns to Father Whalen and says that he’s trying (to not curse). Father Whalen tells him to try harder.
At their final time out, Jacks tells the guys to a run a specific play and they execute it exactly and they win, 57-55.
Jack sees Brandon, a very quiet and talented player, walking home from school that night and gives him a ride. They talk about the game and certain plays and Jack gives him special advice. Jack tells him he is the best player on the team.
Marcus is notoriously quiet on and off of the court and doesn’t say anything in response. Jack tells Brandon he sees the game differently than anyone else.
Jack asks him if he makes him team captain, will he speak up to the other guys when they need it.
When they get to Brandon’s house, his father lets him in, and he eyeballs Jack suspiciously. Jack waves to him, reassuringly from his truck.
At practice the next day, Jack has Brandon calling out plays and moves. It is more of a lesson in getting Brandon to project his voice throughout the gym. We see Jack in different parts of the gym, yelling to Brandon that he can’t hear him.
Eventually, Brandon yells, “F*ck you! Can you hear that?” Jack, under his breath, says he can hear that.
The next day Marcus shows up at Jack’s apartment. He tells Jack that he wants to be on the team again because his mom can only pick him up at a certain time after school, and it coincides with the basketball schedule.
Jack tells him sorry and that he can arrange for a study hall or some other scheduling accommodation instead.
Jack shuts the door. Marcus knocks on his door again. He is crying. He says he wants to play basketball and he doesn’t like anything else.
In all of this passionate outpour, Marcus curses to emphatically describe his enthusiasm. Jack tells him not to swear. Marcus desperately apologizes. Jack sighs and tells him to be at practice at 4. “Don’t be late,” Jack scolds.
At the next practice, Jack walks up to the team with Marcus alongside him. He tells them Marcus is back on the team and that Brandon is the captain going forward. Later we see Brandon calling out authoritatively, looking for Kenny. It is implied that Kenny is once again talking to a girl and needs to be wrangled in.
We see the team playing differently at games. They are more cohesive and less sloppy. We see Jack still cursing “Chickensh#t” and “Bullsh#t” at bad calls. The final scores are losses but much closer. One is 57-54. The next is 49-43.
We see the improvement trend continue at the next game and then the next. Jack tells the team if they do all of the little things right, it will lead to big things. He reminds them that little things can make a big difference. And they do. They start winning games.
We see Jack working on plays while he is working at his construction job. He has the team training hard during practice. He has them running up the bleachers and around the stands. He tells them to respect the game and works out strategies while inspiring them.
At the next practice, we see Kenny running back and forth the parquet flooring, from basket to basket to the point of exhaustion. He is being punished, and he breathlessly wants to know how much longer he has to run back and forth. This punishment is not put upon him by the coach or the team. The three girls he’s been romancing and preoccupied by are watching on the sidelines and dictating this penalty. The team is watching on the bleachers and laughing at him.
Angie and Jack attend Miguel’s son’s birthday party together. It is at an outdoor park with batting cages and mini-golf. They are both sullen. They used to be very friendly with this family and group of people but aren’t close with anymore. “Remember him? This is Michael’s Dad,” is how Miguel describes Jack to his son. Being called “Michael’s Dad” shakes Jack up. Later we see Angie and Jack leaving flowers by the headstone of Michael Cunningham. This is their son. She whispers to Michael’s headstone softly. Jack afterwards grips the headstone and sadly says, “I miss you, Bud.”
In the truck, as Jack is dropping Angie off at her home, they talk. She says she felt like an outcast, and she gets angry all over again at occasions like that birthday party. Jack tells her he never stops being angry. He tells her he’s suffering. He says he misses his son, and he doesn’t believe he is in a better place.
Jack says the best place for him (Michael) is with him and her. Jack is overwhelmed and then turns on her by criticizing her for having a new job and for having a new rich boyfriend while they are still married. He catches himself as he’s gone too far and says sorry.
She gets out of the truck, and he drives away.
Days later, Beth visits Jack at his apartment along with her family and their mother. Beth tells Jack he needs a new shower curtain because his current one smells. It is an otherwise friendly visit, and they are very interested in Jack’s team and how they are doing. Beth’s son is particularly fascinated as he follows the stats after every game religiously.
He knows the whole schedule and how important the next two games are to get into the playoffs.
The next game is a big one, indeed. Jack’s mother, Beth, and her whole family sit in the bleachers to support him. Sal, Jake’s friend from the liquor store on Thanksgiving, is on the court as a ref. Bishop Hayes is playing aggressively. In the 4th quarter, the score is so close it could be either team’s game. Tension is high, and there are bad calls on Bishop Hayes. Jack loses his cool. He gets into Sal’s face. “You’re a p*ssy! F*ck you,” he yells at the ref. Father Whalen grabs Jack and tries to diffuse the eruption by yelling “code of conduct!” at him. Jack narrowly escapes being ejected from the game. Bishop Hayes loses 60-63.
Jack is driving Brandon home after the game. He tells Brandon he’s sorry for losing his temper tonight. Brandon tells Jack that his father said Jack had a full basketball scholarship to Kansas, but he didn’t take it. Brandon wants to know why. Jack tells him that he loved playing basketball because it made his father proud of him, but then he realized that his dad loved that he was good at basketball, not for who he was. “So you quit as a big f*ck you to your Dad” Brandon said, trying to make sense of it.
Jack tells him he got into drugs and anything else to hurt himself for years to try to hurt his father. Jack tells Brandon that it was his wife that got him out of that, and he never picked up a basketball again.
The next day Jack goes to Brandon’s father’s work to talk to him. Jack tells him that Brandon’s been getting college recruitment letters for full scholarships. Brandon’s father tells Jack that it doesn’t work out if you put your faith in basketball.
When Jack asks why he doesn’t go to Brandon’s games, he tells Jack that he has responsibilities and doesn’t want to encourage Brandon in that direction.
The next game is their last opportunity to make the playoffs. Although it’s at their home court, the team is very nervous. In Jack’s office, Dan uncharacteristically says to him, “I know it doesn’t really matter, but I really want to beat these f*cking guys.”
Jack pumps up the guys with encouragement before the tip off. He knows they are nervous and jokes that the other team probably has a better coach. Jack emphasizes that the other team is not a better team and to earn the playoffs.
The visiting team gets a big lead right away. They have a groove and are running sets like clockwork. Their pace is scary as they rack up the score quickly. At every time out Jack tells his team to work on the little things, the fundamentals, and the diamond press. Things begin to change slowly. Play after play, Bishop Hayes gains momentum and manages to catch up.
We are in the 4th quarter, and there is only time for one more play. It will be Bishop Hayes’ ball. There is a time out, and we hear both teams strategize. Jack tells his huddled players to run a very elaborate passing set. The ball is to be passed to specific players in a very practiced particular sequence and then shot. “Win,” they all chant together.
As the team walks onto the court, Jack tells Brandon privately to forget everything he just said and take the shot himself. Brandon says I got this.
In slow motion, we see Brandon take the ball in as rehearsed. We notice the slight confusion of his team mates as they don’t quite understand what Brandon is doing. Brandon shoots for 3 points at the buzzer and swish. It goes in, and Bishop Hayes wins 68-69. The fans go crazy. They lift Brandon up in celebration. Dan hugs Jack. Father Whalen hugs Jack. The mascot is happy. Everyone is overjoyed. Jack walks away from the frenzy and smiles.
The next day, Angela calls Jack. She is crying and tells him Miguel called her. Later they meet at the hospital. Angela tells Jack that Miguel’s son had a fever a couple of days ago and has been getting progressively worse since then. He is currently sedated now. We look around this ward and see that the patients are all children that have undergone different stages of cancer treatments. Angela and Jack are right outside Miguel’s son’s room. They can see that the doctor has just walked in to tell Miguel and his wife, the prognosis. “No! No!” we hear Miguel’s wife howl in anguish.
This whole scene stirs up Jack painfully to his core, and he leaves the hospital as fast as he can. He goes to Harold’s Place for some immediate day drinking, which leads to night drinking. That night, Doc, once again help Jack upstairs to his apartment. Doc tells him that he used to help his father up the stairs too. Jack wakes up the next morning and realizes he is late for basketball practice. He runs to Harold’s Place, where he left his truck the night before and rushes to the gym. He arrives hungover and disheveled. He tells Dan that the electricity went out at his apartment, so he overslept. We see Dan doesn’t believe him.
Later we see Jack pouring hard liquor into his coffee thermos at his desk while he is reviewing basketball footage on his laptop. Dan and Father Divine come to his office unannounced. Father Divine tells Jack that they have to let him go.
Dan tells Jack that he knows he lied about being late. He said he could smell the liquor on him, and the guys on the team could too. Jack begs him to just let him stay to make it in the playoffs. He pleads with him and says he really needs this (job). Father Divine says he can’t be responsible for having him be around the boys like that and that they have a zero tolerance policy for that behavior.
Jack says this is all bullshit and has a hard time taking the key to his office off of his keyring. Jack asks them who is going to coach the team without him. “You?” he scoffs while pointing to Dan. “You’re a f*cking math teacher.” We see him a little while later, sadly walking through the gym, for the last time as the Head Coach.
Jack is at the bar having a beer. The bartender pours him a shot and says it’s from the blond in the corner who says she knows you. A little later, the bartender pours him another shot and says it’s from the blond, and she says stop being a jackoff and come talk to her.
We see Jack driving the blond home, and he is sloppily drunk. He drives head on into a parked car and sets off its alarm. She tells him that this is her neighbor’s car, and she lives just around the corner. She tells him to hurry, park around the back and meet her at her apartment.
He does exactly that.
Jack walks into the upstairs apartment and opens the refrigerator to look for beer. Then he walks into the bathroom to take a piss. As he is relieving himself with the bathroom door open, we see a man holding a baseball bat approach him and asking him who the hell is he and what is he doing. Drunk as he is, Jack realizes that he walked into the wrong apartment by mistake. The man with the bat tells Jack he has called the police. When Jack hears this, he tries to leave, and after a scuffle with the man with the bat, Jack falls down the stairs. He is passed out, bloody and broken.
Jack wakes up in the hospital. Beth is curled up in the chair next to him. “Can I get you anything?” she asks. She tells him the police found him in the street. The police also told her that he broke into someone’s house. Beth asks Jack if he is going to kill himself or keep going like this. She tells him she is going to get him help and arranges for him to stay at a rehab facility.
We see Dan telling the guys that Jack won’t be coaching the team any longer.
Then we see Jack in tears at a therapy session in rehab. The therapist tells him she notices that he never talks about his son. He tells her about his son’s tumors on his spine and in his brain. He tells her about the 30 round of radiation he went through and his screams when he had seizures. The therapist tells Jack to think about Michael and what would he want for Jack.
She tells Jack that he can’t change the past, but he can change how he moves forward.
Angie visits Jack in rehab. Jack tells her that he should have come to rehab a long time ago. He tells her that he knows he failed her and their marriage and their son. He explains that he failed their son by not taking care of his mom. Jack tells her that he hopes she can see the man in him she once hoped he would be.
He tells her he is so sorry. They deeply embrace.
We see the Bishop Hayes team on the bus going to the first playoff game.
Then we see Jack’s mother, Beth, and her family all visiting Jack in rehab. The visit is wonderful. Jack is open and is more at peace.
After Jack’s family leaves, we see Dan’s cell phone ringing. It’s a call from Jack before the game. The team is huddled up with Father Whelan. He is leading them in prayer of holy and deep reverence. After the “Amen,” still in a huddle, Bobby pumps the guys up by saying, “Let’s win this f*cking game for Coach Cunningham!”
This playoff game is in a snazzy venue, and the guys on the team are taking in all of the glamour and bigness of it. Brandon’s father and 2 younger brothers show up, and Brandon is touched. Marcus is in love with this fanfaire. We see Brandon leading the team confidently and loudly.
Close to the rehab center, Jack is happily shooting hoops alone at a basketball court by the ocean. As we see Jack running and dribbling, we hear the commentators at the Bishop Hayes playoff game as a voice-over. They are crediting Jack with how far this team has come. They attribute the team’s impressive chances of winning to Jack Cunningham’s influence and inspiration.