There’s no more essential story than that of the Hero’s Journey, and when you combine that with a tale of redemption and spiritual awakening, you should have all the ingredients necessary for a moving, powerful film. That was what Emilio Estevez undoubtedly had in mind when he adapted, directed and gave himself a key role in the film The Way.
The titular Way refers to El Camino de Santiago, an ancient 800km pilgrimage from France to Spain, and the reluctant pilgrim is Tom (Martin Sheen, father of Emilio Estevez), who has flown to France from his comfortable suburban life to claim the body of his 40-something son Daniel (Estevez), who has died unexpectedly on the first day of his own journey towards Santiago de Compostela.
As with many men of his generation, Tom has poured all his wishes and dreams into his only child, Daniel, and the few scenes where we see them converse are hard to watch as each hovers in his own corner, afraid of really seeing the other for whom they truly are and acknowledging that love isn’t about approval and expectations, but something a lot deeper.
Unfortunately, the parallels of real life paternity only work for so long and within ten minutes of The Way, it’s painfully obvious that Martin Sheen is terribly miscast in the role of the confused, withdrawn, grieving father. He just doesn’t have the acting range to convince us that he is a man deeply grieving the loss of his only child, something that no parent should ever have to experience and that should create a profound, breathtaking sadness. Sheen’s a one-note actor and while being “distant” or “disconnected from his feelings” could work for the first part of his ultimately inexplicable journey along the entire 800km Camino de Santiago, by the end of the film it’s embarrassing to watch him react to the overt religious overtones of his pilgrimage with no more emotion than he’d have ordering a cappuccino at his favorite Starbucks.
There’s a warm, thoughtful and moving film waiting to be made from the Jack Hitt book, but Estevez didn’t capture it with his banal script and Sheen was just, well, awful. Skip this one, even if your “enlightened” friends tell you how deep and profound it was…
Redeeming this self-important film is the gorgeous scenery of rural France and, mostly, rural Spain, as Tom and his ragtag companions on the way travel along, day after slogging day, each on their own ostensible spiritual quest. We live in an age of cynicism, though, and while the four travelers are all on their pilgrimages, there’s not much introspection and almost no redemption or enlightenment at the end of the journey.
The obvious parallel to this book is The Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories about pilgrims on the road to Canterbury Cathedral, written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 1500’s. In The Way, the pilgrims are Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), a bitter Canadian divorceé who is caustic and thoroughly unpleasant, Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), an overweight, jovial Dutchman who is happy to share his endless supply of drugs and seems mostly to be on the journey to whet his endless appetite, and Jack (James Nesbitt), a goofy Irish writer who has lost his ability to write but not his touch o’ the blarney.
Each is on their own quest: Sarah wants to heal the core hurt of her life though she tells everyone the pilgrimage is about stopping her smoking addiction, Joost wants to lose weight so that his wife will love him again, and Jack wants to find his writing muse, so he can go back to being a successful writer. Tom? His journey is to understand and ultimately accept the decisions that Daniel made as he grew up, and to let him go and forgive himself for his dogmatic and unsympathetic parenting.
“Tom”, “Sarah”, “Joost” and “Jack”, left to right, from “The Way”
Yes, they’re all archetypes and as each reveals their personal journey, it’s all so predictable that at any point viewers could pause the film and write down the rest of the story and ultimate ending. Surprise! Sarah laughs before the film’s over, admitting that she’s going to continue smoking after all, Joost accepts himself and his appetites, Jack — who is ostensibly the author of the film itself — regains his muse and Tom? Tom reaches the end of the path and flies home to his optometric practice. Has he changed or attained any enlightenment at all? It’s darn hard to tell.
And that’s the fundamental problem with The Way. The story is beautiful, the scenery is lovely, and Estevez clearly has a future as a director, but ultimately the script is too weak to carry the film, the dialog is too frequently cliché and insipid, and Sheen is completely miscast at the heart of the movie. It just doesn’t work.