The Way Back is a survival story of epic proportions. A handful of men make a daring escape from a Siberian gulag during WWII. Some were wrongly imprisoned; others (Colin Farrell's character, for instance) have a criminal past. The escapees slog through the toughest terrain during the most adverse conditions imaginable. The landscape and the elements prove to be even harsher than prison.
You can't help but root for these men (and the runaway girl, played by Saoirse Ronan, they inexplicably pick up along the way) to make it to safety. But, that doesn't mean you'll enjoy or even appreciate the journey.
The first blizzard we see them caught in is terrifying. By the fourth one, we're almost bored. But eventually, they find themselves in the Mongolian desert, where the landscape is completely different -- and a relief to see -- yet just as unforgiving as the snowy mountains. Again, there are only so many times we can see their sunburned faces and swollen feet before the shock wears off ... and we start to nod off.
The religious imagery is, by turns, subtle and heavy-handed. The runaway girl sporting a makeshift crown of thorns is an example of the latter. She's hardly a Jesus figure, so the crown makes little sense.
What makes less sense is the total lack of character development. This critic saw the movie a couple of hours ago, and she's already forgotten all the characters' names, except for one "Mr. Smith" (Ed Harris).
If you're a fan of closure, you will undoubtedly be frustrated by this flick. We don't find out the fates of any of the escapees, including the one who wanders off mid-journey with little explanation. I suppose when you haven't bothered to develop your characters, you figure the audience won't grow attached enough to any of them to care.
My hat's off to the real men on whom this story is based. But, my hat is firmly on with regard to the screenwriter and director. While the one-dimensional characters searched for the way back, I was just looking for a way out. Skip it.