The Way - SideReel Review
Well-meaning, earnest, and often dull, Emilio Estevez’s psychological drama The Way would be unendurable without his father Martin Sheen in the lead role. Sheen plays Tom, a widower in his sixties forever frustrated by his free-spirit son Daniel (Estevez), who recently left to hike El Camino de Santiago, a months-long European pilgrimage to a cathedral in Spain that contains the remains of the apostle James. When Tom gets a call that Daniel died on the trail during a storm, he travels to France to pick up the remains. While there, he decides to work through his grief by going on the hike himself and scattering his son’s ashes at different points on the journey.
Soon enough, he befriends a tubby, good-natured Dutchman named Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), whose joviality eventually wears down Tom’s taciturn resistance to friendship. They in turn fall in with Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), who claims to be making the trip in order to kick her addiction to cigarettes, and Jack (James Nesbitt), a travel-magazine journalist suffering from writer’s block. As the unlikely foursome travel from village to village, they wrestle with the demons that have turned them into pilgrims undertaking this historic route.
Although the initial setup is handled with an understated grace, the pronounced lack of drama pretty much kills any interest in these characters once the journey is under way. We’re simply waiting for each person to get to the point when they finally talk about their feelings, and in between, we watch them walk and walk and walk. The film’s central metaphor is pretty obvious, as Estevez’s character lays it out in an early scene when he reminds his dad that "you don’t choose a life, you live it." As a director Estevez spends the next 110 minutes driving that point home, wanting us to appreciate the experiences these four are having. And while that makes for a stunning travelogue of the French and Spanish countryside, it’s the opposite of riveting drama.
Sheen’s weathered face is intriguingly haunted; we’re willing to stick with him even when nothing is going on, in anticipation of the moment when he’ll drop the stoic mask that covers his pain. Sadly, that doesn’t come until well over half the movie is over, and by that point we’re watching more out of respect for the actor than out of any genuine interest in the character.
The movie’s best sequence involves a trip to a Gypsy neighborhood, where the quartet is treated to a feast and a night of entertainment, but just as Estevez finally finds a way to shake up the plot with this detour, he undercuts it by scoring their departure to Alanis Morissette’s "Thank You," which underlines the point of the scene in case you were too slow to realize it.
The Way is the kind of movie you hate to say bad things about -- it wants you to feel more connected to yourself, other people, and the world around you. The problem is it feels like it takes longer to watch the movie than it would to walk El Camino de Santiago yourself.