Emilio Estevez’s The Way is old fashioned filmmaking.
By which I mean that it takes its time, lets its story and its characters breathe, and slowly gets under your skin until it becomes a part of you.
It’s not perfect, but this variation on the road movie — or Canterbury Tales, if you’re a classicist — is terrifically satisfying.
Widower and LA area opthamologist Tom Avery (Martin Sheen) is enjoying a game of golf when the cell phone call comes through. His only child, his son Daniel, has died while traveling in France.
Tom has no choice but to catch a flight to Paris. A train trip brings him to a small town in the Pyrenees where a police officer (French film stalwart Tchéky Karyo) informs him that Daniel died in a mountain storm while attempting to walk the Camino de Santiago, or Way of St. James, a 500-mile pilgrimage from Southern France into Spain and on to a cathedral in the city of Galacia where the bones of St. James reportedly rest.
A fairly solitary man in the best of times, Tom must bear the burden not only of Daniel’s death but of their final encounter, in which Tom berated his son for living the life of a wandering hippie at age 38. Looking for a way to connect with his estranged son, Daniel decides to walk the Camino himself, spreading Daniel’s ashes along the way.
So The Way is basically a road movie, albeit a slow road movie (everybody’s walking, right?).
Without really wanting it to happen, Tom attracts a handful of fellow pilgrims, none of whom are particularly religious.
The fat Dutchman Joost (Yorick van Wageningen ... he was the sexually predatory lawyer in the American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) hopes to lose weight on the long hike, although his tremendous appetite suggests he’ll be lucky to break even.
The sardonic, angry Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger, radiating bruised beauty) wants to forget a traumatic marriage.
The Irish writer Jack (James Nesbitt) is supposed to be doing a guide book about The Way, but he’s dealing with a bad case of writer’s block.
As the weeks pass (it takes a couple of months to do The Way on foot) Tom goes from resenting his fellow travelers to cherishing their companionship.
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There are big meals, stays in inns and snore-filled hostels, minor adventures (Tom’s backpack is dropped into a mountain stream and later stolen by a gypsy boy), embarrassing moments (a drunken Tom spends a night in a Spanish police station), and more gorgeous scenery than one film deserves.
Periodically Tom gets flashes of his late son (played by his real-life son, the writer/director of this movie).
Estevez (his last directing effort was Bobby, about the day Robert Kennedy was shot) is so good at latching onto the unhurried rhythms of the pilgrimage that when The Way does aim for dramatic fireworks it sometimes feels a tad forced.
But there’s no complaining about the performances, especially Sheen’s, which goes from grief to glum hilarity and on to something resembling transcendence.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.