By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
Martin Sheen walks the walk and Emilio Estevez writes the talk in The Way, a sincere personal collaboration between a real-life father and son who happen to be enormously talented.
The Way is an episodic inspirational drama that explores the difference, as one character puts it, between “the life we live and the life we choose.”
Sheen stars as a bereaved father named Tom Avery. He’s a withdrawn, cranky American ophthalmologist and widower from Southern California who comes to France to collect the remains of his free-spirited son, a former graduate-student-turned-world-traveler (played in flashbacks and visions by Estevez, Sheen’s real-life son and the film’s director) who has been killed during a storm in the Pyrenees while he was walking the Camino de Santiago, a Christian pilgrimage route to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, also known as The Way of St. James.
But instead of returning home, Tom decides, on the spur of the moment and in honor of his deceased (and because of the difference in their values, estranged) son, and in hopes of understanding him better, to embark on and complete a similar 800-kilometer odyssey across northern Spain and walk the same ancient spiritual trail where his son died, while carrying his late son’s ashes in a metal box, sprinkling and spreading them at various locations. This despite the fact that he has never shared his son’s wanderlust.
Tom does not do it alone. First he encounters a sympathetic French cop played by Tcheky Karyo, who has reservations about the physical undertaking Tom is about to subject himself to.
But Tom is determined to proceed.
Among the most prominent of the other pilgrims he meets and who become his walking companions on his journey — all looking for answers and thus greater meaning in their lives — are Sarah, a sharp-tongued Canadian backpacker who would like to quite smoking, played by Deborah Kara Unger; Joost, a friendly, pot-smoking Dutchman who would like to shed a few pounds but can’t stop eating, played by Yorick van Waginingen; and Jack, a talkative Irish travel writer who’s trying to battle through a severe case of writer’s block, played by James Nesbitt.
Tom is at first irritated by the quirks of his new acquaintances and later lashes out at them with surprising ferocity. But his antipathy disappears as time and the miles go by and he gets to know and appreciate them.
Director Estevez (Bobby, The War at Home, Men at Work), who also wrote the screenplay and produced, captures much of the breathtaking travelogue scenery, tosses in the occasional casually funny but completely appropriate sight gag, and keeps the pacing deliberate as he forces the film’s relaxed rhythms on us, while referencing or paralleling The Wizard of Oz in the script’s structure as the four characters walk down the road.
What Estevez is interested in examining is the nature of pilgrimage and not religion but spirituality, neither accepting nor rejecting organized religion, but examining the faith underneath it.
Sentimentality is occasionally indulged, and the central metaphor that is the Camino, with people sticking together so that don’t lose their way, is perhaps a shade too literal. But Estevez’s inclusion of passages of comic relief and his overall light touch rule the day, perhaps best demonstrated by a minimalist climax, which ends up being all the more moving for the director’s restraint.
Sheen, in virtually every scene — and for whom Estevez wrote the script — is marvelous as the grieving, regretful father. He never tries to ingratiate himself with the other characters or with us — he just does. And his presence helps impatient audience members appreciate the film’s old-fashioned, leisurely pace — which some might describe as meandering.
This collaboration between father and son (Sheen a devout Catholic and Estevez an agnostic) is a thoughtful exploration of community, of loss, and of faith that makes up for in heart what it lacks in edge. But it’s also a portrait of the bond between them — and perhaps between all fathers and sons.
So we’ll journey toward 3 stars out of 4 for Emilio Estevez’s personal road movie, a meditative and emotional drama that takes its time getting to its destination, but manages to win us over along The Way.