I’m always a bit leery about films that are intent on delivering a “message.” Rarely are movies like this done with any semblance of tact or subtlety as the filmmakers behind them belabor their point and literally beat the viewer over the head to make sure they get the point they’re trying to make. I hate being treated like a dullard, while the inherent self-righteousness of these projects leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth.
Thankfully, Emilio Estevez avoids this sort of posturing and displays a deft touch behind the camera that’s previously eluded him. The Way is a quietly moving inspirational tale about one man who sets out on a journey without knowing what his destination or purpose is. That man is Tom (Martin Sheen), a widower who’s made a comfortable living as a Los Angeles optometrist. However, his life is derailed when he gets word that his son (Emilio Estevez) has been killed while making a pilgrimage in Europe. Shattered and unsure how to progress, Tom goes to France to identify the body and embarks on an unexpected, life-altering journey.
The trek his son began is the “El Camino de Santiago,” (The Way of St. James) a pilgrimage from France through Spain that is some 500 miles in length and terminates at Santiago de Compostela where the remains of St. James are buried. Though interest in this waned in the 1980s with fewer than 700 people making the journey in 1985, it now attracts thousands of pilgrims each year, peaking during Holy Years, the last of which was 2010 when more than a quarter of a million people made their way on this sacred path.
Of course Tom knows none of this and as he learns about the importance of the journey, so do we. He decides to complete the trip his son undertook. Along the way he meets a bitter woman (Deborah Kara Unger) who pledges to give up smoking once she completes the pilgrimage, a Dutch hedonist (Yorick van Wageningen) who insists he’s taking the trip to lose weight and an Irish author (James Nesbitt) trying to overcome writer’s block.
None of these are the real reasons why this trio is making the trip. As the journey progresses and these travelers let their guard down, a bond forms between them that’s unexpected and remarkably strong. One of the strengths of the film is that Estevez holds his cards close to his vest and resists the temptation to show each of these characters undergoing a sudden, radical transformation. His view of the “El Camino de Santiago” is that it is not so much a transformative experience as it is the first step towards altering one’s thinking and perception. Yes, it is a first step that lasts 500 miles, but a first step nonetheless in a journey that is to last an entire lifetime. Estevez avoids sermonizing as well, as he presents the trip as a method that may work for some but not others.
Sheen is quite good here, slowly allowing this man’s layers of hurt and disappointment to dissolve as he gets to know his son better by taking the steps he would have taken. Tightly wound, bitter and possessing a sense of decorum that’s become antiquated, the actor wears these qualities effortlessly and it is with great effort that he reveals the pain Tom is carrying.
Much like Sheen’s performance, the film proves to be a cathartic and moving experience that’s confident in its message. Estevez’s restraint holds this production in good stead, as he knows he does not have to shout his message from the mountaintops. Rather, he presents this as a viable metaphor for anyone in need of taking a journey of self-discovery, whether it be by making a pilgrimage across Spain or one in which the steps taken are internal and honest.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at email@example.com.