I regret to say that having finally seen Peter Weir‘s The Way Back, I now understand why it took so long to find a distributor. It’s a high-level outdoor survival drama in a long, gloomy, sloggy vein. It has a rote and rudimentary quality that, for me, places it apart from everything in the Weir canon. The man who made it knew what he was doing, but it was a bad idea or a bum steer or something.

It’s not in the realm of Gallipoli or Picnic at Hanging Rock or Master and Commander or The Mosquito Coast, even. It’s better than Green Card or The Truman Show, but that’s not saying much. I can at least say it’s not painful to sit through. Because it isn’t.

It’s about what people can do when they have no choice but to suck it in and go the extra 4000 miles in order to live. The slogan that wasn’t used is “These raggedy men wanted desperately to survive…and they did!” And it’s very well acted and convincingly brutal and handsomely framed. It’s watchable and absorbing for what it is.

The Way Back is about six or seven guys who escape from a Soviet Siberian gulag in the early 1940s and hike between 4000 to 5000 kilometers to freedom — across Siberia and Mongolia (including a vast desert), then across the Himalayas and into India. The escapees are played by Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Gustaf Skarsgard, Alexandru Potocean and Sebastian Urzendowsky. And along they way they hook up with Saoirse Ronan. (Thank goodness nobody tries anything with her.) And the elements are brutal. No one catches a break.

A title card tells us from the get-go that only three finally made it to India so right away you’re asking yourself, “Okay, which ones are the weak sisters who are going to crap out along the way?”

I knew going in that anyone making a journey of 4000 or 5000 kilometers on foot will face terrible strain and hunger and hardship. I knew that. What, then, did The Way Back tell me? It told me that making a journey of 4000 or 5000 kilometers on foot involves terrible strain and hunger and hardship.

I’m not persuaded that Weir’s story was all that rich or interesting to begin with. It’s essentially a film about endurance and surviving the elements and blah-dee-blah. It’s about cold and hunger and baking heat and swollen feet and snow and wolves and aching joints and beards and dampness and a big lake and a cave.

A critic friend said that film “seems to last almost as long as the actual trek did.” I don’t feel that way. The Way Back is not a boring film. It is, however, a “why did they make this film again?” film. It seems as if Weir was just able to get it done and not much else. He and his team deserve approval for having made the effort, but I don’t know how anyone can see this thing and then do cartwheels in the lobby. It’s just okay, and at times a bit tedious. I didn’t mean that. I meant trying.

In Contention‘s Kris Tapley feels differently. Or did, at least, when he saw The Way Back in Telluride.