Seven inmates in the Soviet gulag, faced with the prospect of near-certain death, escape their Siberian prison and try to walk to freedom.
But freedom is thousands of miles away, over the harshest terrain imaginable and with the most meager of supplies. They already have been warned by their captors that the barbed wire is not their prison, Siberia is, and if that doesn't kill them "the locals will."
"The Way Back" is their story, told through the vision of Australian director Peter Weir ("The Year of Living Dangerously," "Gallopoli"). Weir pulls no punches in his portrayal of life in the gulag, a dark and brutal nightmare where food is scarce and kindness more so.
We enter the camp with Janusz (Jim Sturgess), a young Polish officer in World War II falsely convicted of treason based on testimony by his wife, who tearfully repeats it in front of his disbelieving eyes after suffering unseen torture. In prison, Janusz meets an actor whose crime was playing an aristocrat on stage, an artist, a priest and, surprisingly, an American, "Mr. Smith," played by a craggy Ed Harris with Eastwood-like inscrutability.
Valka (Colin Farrell) is not among Janusz's comrades. Instead, the cinematic bad boy disappears into the role of the ruthless gangster who runs the barracks with an iron fist wrapped around a long and lethal dagger. Valka forces his way into the escape only to avoid being killed himself by another gang over gambling debts. Freedom, he makes it clear, means nothing. Survival is what matters.
Men sent to the gulag know better than to trust too much or talk too much, and it would take too much energy anyway on this grueling journey. They walk on because they are alive; they will stop when they are dead. But, as Janusz says, at least "they will die as free men."
The obstacles could not be more formidable; their situation could not be more grim. Not knowing exactly where their prison is, they didn't know exactly where they were going, but they cannot go east or west, so they head south, toward China and maybe Tibet. They barely have shoes, much less food, tools or medicine. Desperation propels them forward as much as any real hope.
This is not "Lifeboat" in central Asia, but Weir's action is plenty rough. Even men accustomed to starving need to eat eventually, and sometimes that means being more ferocious than a pack of wolves, literally.
When they are near villages, the fear of arrest keeps them from getting help. And when a young woman (Saoirse Ronan), fleeing her own Russian hell, wants to join them, it is hard to say yes for fear she will slow them down, or worse.
But there seldom are villages, and the farther they travel, all signs of life drop away. In the vast landscape of the Mongolian desert, the tiny band's hold on survival starts to slip away, but Weir doesn't ease up.
And yet, they keep walking.
From the start, we are told that three men make it over the Himalayas to India. The things they do to get there, and the things they choose not to do, make for a dramatic tale of endurance.
"The Way Back" brings that home, but despite the steadfastness of its characters, as they near the end it becomes more exhausting than compelling.
For those who can handle it, though, Weir has something powerful to say about the human spirit and how people decide to live when that is all they have left.
THE WAY BACK
3 stars (out of 4)
STARRING: Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Jim Sturgess and Saoirse Ronan
DIRECTOR: Peter Weir
RUNNING TIME: 133 minutes
RATING: PG-13 for violent content, physical hardships and brief strong language.
THE LOWDOWN: A small group of prisoners escape the Soviet gulag and walk 4,000 miles over desert and the Himalayas to reach freedom.