After his sprawling ensemble film Bobby, actor/director Emilio Estevez has chosen to get far more intimate in his follow up film The Way. With a cast that primarily consists of four individuals, Estevez shows his sensitivity as a filmmaker and skill behind the camera with this warm tale of friendship and spirituality. Unlike many other religiously inspired movies, Estevez’s film never beats the audience over the head with its message and instead focuses on the stories of its characters. Apart from a few dud performances and some bizarre editing and music choices, The Way manages to be a sweet movie that thoughtfully demonstrates what it’s like to search for fulfillment.
Providing most of the film’s on screen inspiration is a fantastic turn from Estevez’s father, Martin Sheen. Sheen portrays Tom, a curmudgeonly, conservative ophthalmologist whose son Daniel (Estevez) is killed while journeying along the Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain. When Tom arrives to retrieve his son’s ashes he is inspired to take up the journey himself, and he scatters his son’s ashes along the hundreds of miles that are scattered with Catholic imagery.
Along the way Tom meets a number of individuals who join him on the trek, much to his initial chagrin. These include an overweight future groom named Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), a clever and cruel smoker named Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), and an uninspired Irish writer named Jack (James Nesbitt). The four form a group that mirrors the faction in The Wizard of Oz as they search for a brain, a heart, some courage, and a true sense of home. Their surface level desires reveal a search for something deeper and we gradually learn more about the characters as their journey progresses.
Filmed on location in the North of Spain, Estevez and his cinematographer Juan Miguel Azpiroz capture some beautifully majestic shots of the Pyrenees. If nothing else, the film succeeds as a remarkably effective tourist video for the Camino de Santiago. Luckily the camera work takes things deeper than a special by Rick Steves. There are moments that initially look like one of Michelangelo Antonioni’s isolation-emphasizing extreme long shots until a crowd of Pilgrims trekking along interrupts the stillness. This helps reinforce Estevez’s idea that even when Tom wanders, he is never alone.
This film was a pure passion project for both Estevez and Sheen with the setting in Spain located a few miles from their family’s hometown. Estevez’s son also met his wife on the Camino, so the journey is symbolic in more ways than one. It’s impressive that with all of this personal connection to the route, Estevez manages to be so restrained. He puts full faith in his actors to unfold their characters’ personal journeys, which both helps and hurts the film. Martin Sheen gives an immensely moving performance as a father who had never realized that there was a gaping hole in his life. Newcomer to American audiences Yorick van Wageningen provides equal parts insightfulness and comic relief, which fits perfectly in the film. Deborah Kara Unger and James Nesbitt are the two that are out of place with often over the top dialogue readings that often destroy the intimate moments.
The main problem with the film seems to be that Estevez was given too much control over the final cut of the film leading to several scenes that are too long and a few near the end that feel altogether redundant. There are also some bizarre music choices that inappropriately take us back to the 1990s with songs like Alanis Morissette’s “Thank You.” However, if one can overlook those inadequacies, The Way can be enjoyed for the beauty of its simplicity and the deeply personal central performance.
Bottom Line: The Way showcases sensitive direction from Emilio Estevez and a deeply moving performance from Martin Sheen that combine to overcome its numerous flaws.