Review by Richard Brody
Last year, while Charlie Sheen was seemingly holding the “news” industry hostage with his bizarre behavior, his brother Emilio Estevez was putting the finishing touches on “The Way,” a visually stunning and inspirational movie that he had written, directed and produced starring their father, Martin Sheen.
The film follows Tom’s (Martin Sheen) journey to understand his son Daniel (Emilio Estevez) who has seemingly rejected his values. We get a brief glimpse of Tom’s life as a busy ophthalmologist and country club golfer, and Daniel’s as a recent dropout from his Ph.D. program who is preparing for walking the 780 kilometer Camino de Santiago.
Daniel’s adventure ends during his first night out when he dies in a storm in the Pyrenees. As the grief stricken father travels to France to retrieve his son’s body, he thinks about an interaction the two of them had just prior to Daniel’s departure, with Tom telling his son, “I suppose you don’t agree with the life that I have chosen,” and Daniel replying to his father, “You don’t choose a life, dad, you live a life.”
When Tom arrives in France, he is taken to the morgue by Captain Henri (Tcheky Karyo) who mentions that the body can be cremated. After initially declining the offer, Tom decides to have the body cremated and finish the walk that his son started, leaving his ashes along the way. When he tells Henri that he is doing the walk for Daniel, the captain, who has also lost a son and walked the Camino several times, replies, “You walk the Camino for yourself.”
Tom begins the walk doing his paternal duty, wanting to be left alone and having no inclination to share his purpose in walking the Camino. Fortunately, he meets “Joost from Amsterdam” (Yorick van Wageningen), who is kind, gentle and has a seemingly endless supply of mood-altering drugs that he is very willing to share. As much as Tom attempts to keep Joost at both a physical and emotional distance, Joost keeps showing up on the Camino trail and finds out about Tom’s son and the box of ashes.
The duo are subsequently joined by “Sara from Canada” (Deborah Kara Unger), an emotionally scarred woman who refers to Tom as “boomer,” and also by “Jack from Ireland” (James Nesbitt), an Irish travel writer, who has a book contract but is suffering from writer’s block.
They walk most of the Camino together, but Tom has no interest in sharing anything about himself with the trio. However, incidents occur along the way that result in the trio revealing the sins that they wish to cleanse by walking the Camino. With their help, Tom is gradually able to emotionally open up and connect with them, and in so doing, more fully understand his son and ultimately himself. We last see Tom walking through an outdoor bazaar, possibly in Morocco, with a big smile on his face. Perhaps the tree continues to grow near the fallen apple.
In less skilled hands, this movie could have turned into a syrupy mess, but Mr. Estevez takes us on an outer journey that displays the rugged physical beauty of the Camino and an inner journey that reveals the spiritual struggle to find one’s purpose. He is greatly aided by his father, who aptly displays – with and without words – the multitude of emotions that characterize Tom. Some might argue that the movie is too long, but changing the nature of our spiritual character is a slow and difficult process. Mr. Estevez is to be commended for allowing this process to unfold realistically.