Stuck in a Siberian Russian Gulag, the conditions are harrowing. The cold and blizzard drops prisoners where they stand. The mines crush their will and their persons. The logging operations are deadly. Unbelievably, compared to what the escapees will face on their 4,000 mile journey to freedom, the Gulag might have been easier.
Still, they march on, Peter Wier’s directorial effort brilliant in depicting the unforgiving harshness. For every break this small group of former prisoners receives, they are stuck with 10 setbacks. The Way Back contains every element, from the heat of the desert, the coolness of forests, to the bleak outlook of the Himalayas.
If Way Back commits to any faults, it’s jumpy. It can be difficult to establish a pacing, not because it’s too fast or too slow though. It’s merely pushy, keeping the men (and woman) moving forward with no sense of how much time has passed. One night could mean a week, and aside from brief mentions on the part of the dialogue, there is little sense of how long this journey is taking.
However, said journey does take a toll. Way Back was nominated for an Oscar, losing Best Makeup to The Wolfman. While the latter may have crafted a convincing creature, Way Back creates suffering. Skin splits from both frostbite and overbearing sun. Feet swell, crack, and tear. Malnutrition leads to frail bodies and thinning hair. What is part of the actors regiment and what is makeup is transparent.
The film is in no hurry, willing to wait around and establish character. Motivations are more than mere survival, something the film is wise to spread out as to not crowd the front half. Way Back is an agonizing trek, and it’s never just about making it to the next stop. It’s about why these characters are determined to do so, fleshing it out and adding more meat to its bones than the key players have on themselves by the end.
Image’s Blu-ray does not give off a fine initial impression. Black levels sag within the Gulag, failing to give off essential depth. Weir tends to steer the focus soft, preventing fine detail from escaping the frame. That’s not to say it’s all rough going, some close-ups resoundingly convincing, and the tattered rags that are used as clothes display richly defined texture.
The encode is superb as well, handling heavy snow, kicked up dirt inside the mines, and an eventual sand storm without fault. This is all mixed with a fine, resolved grain structure, a well rounded compression effort.
Once the escape hits, Way Back becomes diversified. Some rather obviously green screened night skies delivering the necessary black levels, if not realism. Colors, which initially are forced into a cool, flat, pale look to identify with the sordid conditions, come alive near additional civilization. Deserts contain a plethora of warm hues, and Tibet is alive with lush, deeply saturated greens. Flesh tones follow their environments, while retaining some level of naturalness.
Wier utilizes some enormously effective wide angle views to keep track of locations, from rolling hills to massively scaled mountain regions. Each presents itself with tremendous clarity and definition, features fully resolved well into the limits of the lens. In tight, things come alive as well, Harris especially firm in almost all of his close-ups. That almost award winning makeup shines too, peeling flesh appropriately disturbing.
While not consistently active, Way Back’s DTS-HD home presentation is spectacular. It’s that rare mix that loves splitting the stereos as much as it does using the surrounds for ambiance. So few mixers utilize the front spread for all it is worth and that’s a shame. Listen at 6:14 as the gate doors are spread open, the creaks and moans from the joints individualized in the stereo channels. The tracking from aerial of the logging operation is awesome, and when the surviving group members meet some men on horseback, they’re circled. Horse hooves track through the soundfield beautifully and naturally.
Surrounds play nice too, establishing the ferocity of the weather. Wind bellows, panning across the soundstage with a rare grace. It’s aided by an effective, slightly understated bass, enough that the effect is there without overpowering the other elements. A sand storm late does the same, with equal force and individualized channels. Almost every environment comes to life, although forests seem oddly muted. There’s little sense of life, not just in terms of birds or something of that nature, but from the men trampling through crackling branches or brushing aside plant life in their way.
Dialogue mixes in with the other elements, balanced to perfection. A fine score fills the speakers with an expected level of fidelity and clarity. That’s another element to give this piece added strength, and it’s better for it.
The Journey of the Journey is a half-hour making-of, a solid piece that details the location shoots, casting, and the story this is based on. A trailer is the only other selection.
Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For more information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.
Note: Time stamps are not included (and many screens weren’t taken) due to technical issues.