Director: Emilio Estevez
Writer: Emilio Estevez
Cast: Martin Sheen, Deborah Kara Unger, Yorick van Wageningen
The Way is set on the Camino de Santiago, a medieval pilgrimage route, now used by travellers. It is evidently a personal film. Emilio Estevez directs his father Martin Sheen in the lead role, and also plays the part of his son. The film was inspired by Estevez’s own son’s journey down the Camino, taken with Martin Sheen. But enough about the family.
Very early in the film, the father, Thomas Avery (Sheen), gets a phone call informing him that his son has died while walking the Camino, and he travels to France to collect the body. Naturally, he decides to complete the journey on behalf of his son, presumably to discover the true meaning of what he has lost, and a world he has never previously desired to explore. It is a simple story, and the ending is known from the beginning.
It becomes apparent early into the journey that Thomas will not be travelling alone. He meets a jolly, cannabis-smoking Dutchman (Yorick van Wageningen), a bitter Canadian woman (Deborah Kara Unger), and eventually an irritating Irish writer (James Nesbitt). Each have their own reasons for taking the walk and their own demons to overcome. They are an unlikely group of travellers, especially Thomas himself, who, for most of the film, looks like he would rather be somewhere else. He never seems to believe in it, which becomes a problem. It is difficult to care about his journey when his mind remains closed to it. It seems a duty, almost a chore.
His son (Estevez) also accompanies him. Thomas carries his ashes in a box, and sprinkles them gradually along the way. This works well. However, his son is also there is spirit and frequently appears in person. These visions always appear out of place, and are never anything other than comical. It is difficult to see why they are there.
Watching the film, you also get the feeling that Estevez doesn’t understand travelling. He has an impression of it. There are some unexpected experiences and brief glimpses of what these can mean, but the characters are tourists disguised as travellers and come across as insincere. One scene, in which Avery finds a hostel with everyone dining outside at a long table, is a good example. I don’t doubt that the event could take place, but watching it, I know it didn’t. Everything in that scene was forced. There are other examples. Even the identikit backpacks are difficult to believe.
There are good moments, such as when Thomas has to swim to retrieve his backpack, and when it is later stolen and subsequently returned. The former leads to nothing. The latter is better developed and provides some much needed sincerity, via a gypsy gathering.
The setting should have made up for the flaws to an extent, but, with a few exceptions, it didn’t. It lacks character, lacks threat. It comes across as very tourist board. The direction is bland and extremely safe, unable to bring the scenery (or the acting) to life. The soundtrack is also intrusive and often discordant.
The Way delivers the story it promises, but the execution is stale. It’s an emotional journey without emotion, exploring a wonderful setting without wonder. Due to its personal nature, it ultimately appears self-indulgent, offering mild comic relief but little else.