Reviewed by: Jim O'Neill
death of adult son
What should a Christian do if overwhelmed with depression? Answer
desire to understand son better
searching for greater meaning in life
the difference between ‘the life we live and the life we choose”
Are you good enough to get to Heaven? Answer
|Featuring:||Emilio Estevez … Daniel
Martin Sheen … Tom
Deborah Kara Unger … Sarah
James Nesbitt … Jack
Icon Entertainment International
“Life is too big to walk it alone.”
In 1987, Emilio Estevez directed a movie called “Wisdom”. He also wrote the screenplay and played the leading role, alongside Demi Moore. It’s about two young people who take to the road on a bank robbing spree. Stealing may be bad, but Estevez’ brand of bank robbing was too devotional, too meaningful, too cool to raise an eyebrow. After all, he and Moore didn’t keep the loot for themselves; they turned it over to the poor to help them pay off mortgages and hold onto homes and farms.
Somebody had to do it, the same way somebody had to occupy Wall Street. The banks of 1980s America were avaricious and corrupt. Estevez did his part by pointing this out to all of us, and by putting the banks on notice. That’s why things are so much better today.
“Wisdom” was an awful movie, one of the worst I’ve seen. When I heard that Estevez was resurrecting his career with yet another road movie, I was skeptical. I couldn’t run far enough and fast enough from his newest venture.
I did run, but word of mouth, the card that trumps even the most aggressive of marketing campaigns, made me slow down and reverse course. I went to see “The Way” after it had been playing in New York City for the better part of a month in one small, but increasingly packed, theater.
I judged Estevez and his new movie too soon. “The Way” is a flawed film, but it is a notable achievement by a director who has a flair for character and narrative. I stand corrected. His touch is a lot softer than I expected, and the result is a film that is full of charm and humor. It’s one of the year’s most pleasant surprises.
Tom is an ophthalmologist who practices in southern California. He is a widower who plays golf in his spare time and has a distant, sometimes combative, relationship with his son, Daniel (Estevez in a brief but recurring cameo role). Tom is played by Martin Sheen, the director’s father, in an understated and contained way; all his emotions are held close to his sweater vest or his hiking vest. No one is going to crack his shell. Gone are the pontifications and ramblings of the president on that popular TV show from a few years ago. Sheen gives a pitch perfect performance that reveals bits of the character along the way. There is no award grabbing moment, no breakdown scene. This is, after all, a road movie; it’s an internal journey, as well as a long distance one. Discovery is a slow and often contradictory process. Sheen embodies that truth as well as any actor could.
Tom is on the golf course when he gets the news that his son has been killed in the Pyrennees mountains of France while on pilgrimage to Santiago de Campostella in Spain. The 500 mile Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) has been a popular journey for religious pilgrims for centuries, and although Daniel’s reasons for making such a pilgrimage are not clear, Tom decides to make the trip, too. He comes to France to claim his son’s body, but, instead of returning directly home, he changes course and embarks on the same journey, scattering his son’s ashes at various points along the way.
For an aging ophthalmologist, whose only exercise seems to be getting in and out of a golf cart, Tom has remarkable stamina and strength. He moves at a marathon walker’s pace, runs long stretches when forced to give chase, and even swims some rapids when the story calls for it. Far fetched, yes, but Tom is a man driven by something inside, something that overcomes whatever physical limitations might hold him back. He doesn’t just rush through challenges; he breezes through just about everything in life as though it was all part of a hectic appointment schedule.
I bet you don’t spend hours waiting for the doctor in HIS office. He barely notices the enthralling Basque countryside as he marches by it. It’s a road after all; if there’s something to learn about the journey, he’ll catch it at the finish line. There’s no time to get into the experience; he needs to get on with it.
Along the way, Tom meets some other pilgrims, who at first seem to be right out of central casting: a Dutch epicure with a taste for parties and party drugs, a Canadian divorcee with anger issues and a mean right punch, and an Irish writer who is suffering from, what else, writer’s block. Some of their introductory scenes are wince inducing, but as their characters open up, they become more than just scenery filling co-players. They are fun to be with, and they become much more than just character sketches. Each one has a story and a quest. They may not understand what it is they are in search of, but that doesn’t hold them back. They believe they are looking for something simple: a way to lose weight, a means to quit smoking, an idea to spark the next great novel. Their goals are not unlike wanting a brain or a heart or a trip back to Kansas, when all those things have always been within arm’s reach.
The performances help a great deal: Deborah Kara Unger as Sarah, Yorick Van Waggeningen as Joost, and James Nesbitt as Jack make each character brim with pathos, humor and life. Each is a treasure. Sheen turns in a sublime performance, but he couldn’t have asked for a better supporting cast.
Many things happen along the road to Spain. Assorted characters, some friendly, some brash, some outright crazy (the funniest scene involves a hotel proprietor who fancies himself as several different people with several different voices) pop up along the way. This is, of course, a staple of Hollywood road movies from “Stagecoach” to “It Happened One Night” to “Easy Rider” to “Thelma and Louise”. These encounters, though entertaining and useful to the plot, are rarely plausible, and “The Way” is no exception. It’s amazing how every farmer and innkeeper along the Franco-Spanish border speak perfect English to the point where they can even have political-philosophical discussions using all the nuances of that language.
There’s even a gypsy father and son who seem to have also mastered the Queen’s tongue. The film goes wildly off course during the gypsy interlude, which defies all credibility and is as embarrassing as that steerage dance party sequence in “Titanic”. Okay, I get it, the peasant class knows how to throw a party. I’m not sure how James Cameron or Emilio Estevez know this, but I’ll take their word for it.
The gypsy sequence adds a bit of magic to the story, but unfortunately, it’s more hocus pocus than movie magic. The gypsy father tells Tom that he should not end his journey at Santiago de Campostella but should continue on to Cape Finisterre on the Spanish coast, once thought to be the edge of the world, and spread his son’s ashes there. Tom tells the gypsy he doesn’t believe in such rituals because “I am not a religious man”. The gypsy replies: “Religion has nothing to do with it”. Funny, I thought religion has everything to do with it. I don’t see myself hiking 500 miles, and then some, for the sake of a folk legend. Estevez muddles his message here, but fortunately, he moves along and the quartet eventually arrives at the shrine in Santiago.
I won’t go into every adventure, every conflict, every discovery that the quartet of pilgrims experience along the way. There are a lot of them and almost all of them take you in, make you want to linger awhile, and give you something small but special to take away. The trip is never boring. There is no sense of what a talk show host may describe as becoming the best you can be. “The Way” is a not a story about self attainment or self actualization; it is about how people who come to an understanding of themselves by finding something outside of themselves to love, and by knowing that there is something greater than themselves whose love will guide them on every journey and will be waiting for them at the journey’s end.
Tradition says that the last few steps of the Santiago pilgrimage should be made on one’s knees. “The Way” delicately acknowledges that there are things in our world worth kneeling to; and that no matter who we are or where we came from, each of us wants to end our journey on our knees. In gratitude and in love.
Violence: Minor / Profanity: Moderate / Sex/Nudity: None
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.