A rich but bored ophthalmologist in the twilight of his career, Tom receives the phone call when out on the golf course. It’s long-distance from Europe, and the voice of officialdom delivers the news with dispassionate brevity: “Your son has been killed.” So begins The Way, which takes Tom on one of those literal journeys whose figurative signposts are marked in capital letters and impossible to miss. The man may start off in Grief, but somewhere down the road he’s bound to find Enlightenment. Bank on it.
The architects here are the actual father-and-son team of Emilio Estevez, who holds the writer-director reins, and Martin Sheen, who plays the grieving journeyer. Upon receiving the tragic report, Tom flies from California to France to identify the body and have it cremated. There, he learns death’s details: Daniel died during a violent storm in the Pyrenees, while embarking on an ancient pilgrimage known as the Camino de Santiago.
A quick flashback points to a tense relationship: Dad the ardent conservative, Daniel a laid-back sort given to pronouncements like, “You don’t choose a life, you live it.” So, in the present, Tom decides to finish what his son started, and the film, shot on location, gears up with his vow: “I’m gonna walk the Camino.” All 800 kilometres of it.
Along the way of The Way, ashes get intermittently scattered and fellow-travellers are inevitably met. Not that Tom is much on socializing. He’s incommunicative and cantankerous, engulfed in the solitude of his lonely and now guilty existence. Of course, all that’s about to change with the appearance of the signpost labelled Friendship: No Man Is an Island. There are three friends-in-waiting: Joost the rotund Dutchman with his zeal for the local cuisine (Yorick van Wageningen); Sarah the middle-aged Canadian with her hardened nicotine habit (Deborah Kara Unger); and Jack the garrulous Irishman with his writer’s block (James Nesbitt).
Respectively, they’re making the pilgrimage to lose weight, stop smoking and start scribbling, and the trio attach themselves to Tom like burs on a blanket – apparently, the path to Enlightenment is not without its annoyances.
Okay, since the destination is preordained, what does the script do en route? Estevez’s answer is two-fold: minor episodic adventures + incessantly repeated montages. Tom’s backpack drops into the river; he swims after it. His backpack is stolen by a Gypsy kid; he chases after it. The travellers squabble; they open up; they make up. In between, we get the same recurring montage – shots of hiking, eating, sleeping – that keeps arriving like the commas in a run-on sentence. At least the scenery should be enchanting here, but it isn’t. Too focused on the inner journey, Estevez lacks an eye for the actual trip, and wastes the locations.
He fares much better with the dialogue, which enjoys a loose spontaneity that prevents the spiritual theme from seeming too heavy-handed. Despite the occasional threat, it never lapses into pedantry. Also, his dad’s performance is a major asset – Sheen treks only gradually, and credibly, through his metamorphosis from aggrieved curmudgeon to bold wayfarer. There’s even some comic relief, which comes from the usual chubby source – yes, that jolly Dutchman is the Sancho Panza in the mix.
Still, as allegorical outings go, this doesn’t really stack up to excursions past. Where’s the ribald fun that Chaucer had with his Tales, or the philosophic rigour that Bunyan added to his Progress? Here, there’s not a bawdy wife in sight, and Tom’s Slough of Despond looks about as menacing as a sand trap on the ninth hole. The pilgrimage is still long but, even with the crosses they bear, these are pilgrims lite – perhaps it’s the modern way.
- Directed and written by Emilio Estevez
- Starring Martin Sheen and Deborah Kara Unger
- Classification: NA