Weir makes no claims to this story - about escapees from a Siberian gulag, and their 4,000-mile trek over the Himalayas - being true as he tells it. So it's fitting that the chameleonic craftsman has created something almost entirely unambiguous: none of Master and Commander's moral tug-of-war; none of the fable-like metaphor of The Truman Show; none of the ghostly near-surrealism of Picnic at Hanging Rock.
The performances are very fine across the board. Farrell (as violent gang-leader Valka) and Harris (as the grizzled American Mr Smith) stand out particularly. Like Robert Duvall or Michael Caine, Harris has developed a face marked with history, etched by happiness and hardship. Like all the players, they enjoy a solid, unfussy script, and hurl themselves into native tongue with admirable vigour.
My main issue with the film is probably lying on the cutting room floor. The work of Terrence Malick, John Hillcoat, Andrew Dominik et al shows that there are fine visionary, worldly, painterly directors out there producing work that is both crowd-pleasing and patient. The quality and relevance of the scenes in The Way Back are not in question - so why do so many of them feel truncated, and so hurried? For the escape itself to burst out of nothing makes sense as this could be argued to mirror the sudden confusion of the escapees and the guards. But too many sequences thereafter feel cursory, silencing their own reverberations. Too many shots of the vastness of this chilly hemisphere are all too brief, stealing away that vital sense of dismal isolation.
Perhaps this was intentional. Perhaps Weir wanted to focus on the brutal close-up, rather than the romantic long shot. But if this is at the expense of the expanse, then I feel it does a disservice to the magnificence of the 4,000-mile task, and we're left with something that feels just a bit too small.