The Soul as a Backpack

The Way (September 28, 2011*)     3.5/5

Written & Directed by Emilio Estevez (Producers Distribution Agency, Arc Entertainment)

* I was incredibly fortunate to view an advance screening of The Way on September 28, as Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez made a surprise visit to Virginia Tech. The film was quite a moving event for many students, and was followed by a lengthy Q&A featuring both Sheen and Estevez. I look forward to seeing how many viewers trek out to see the film in the near feature. I promise you won’t be disappointed. The Way comes into limited release on October 7.

What better way to spend father-son bonding time than through a cross-country bus tour promoting your latest movie?  Although it seems like an odd way to market a film, that is exactly what Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez are doing with The Way, a picture not only about the strength of family bonds, but the necessity of actively living one’s life.  Estevez wrote and directed the film, inspired by his son and grandfather’s pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in Spain.  This was where 19-year-old Taylor Estevez met his future wife – the act that encouraged Emilio to write a film about “the way” for his own father, who surely inspired him in the process.  Luckily, the risk paid off.  Sheen gives one of his greatest performances in The Way, a film distributed with virtually no cinematic advertising, yet containing moments of power and beauty common among even the glossiest Hollywood dramas.  Luckily, The Way conveys its message with humor and respect, rather than simply dumping a torrent of unearned emotion on its audience.

Sheen plays Tom, an American eye doctor who soon learns his son, Daniel (Estevez), was killed in a storm while trekking the Camino.  Tom, not yet knowing what he hopes to find, then decides to travel to France and walk the walk himself, scattering his son’s ashes along the path to the Way of St. James cathedral in Galicia.  Along the lengthy journey, Tom meets several Wizard of Oz-inspired characters who will soon become his companions – Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), a hefty, joyful Dutch guy looking to lose some weight, Sarah, a chain-smoking Canadian (Deborah Kara Unger), and Jack (James Nesbitt), an Irish writer who soon finds Tom’s story is worth writing down.  And it certainly is.  As Tom walks the Camino, he begins to realize who is son really was, and why he did the things he did.  Sometimes it’s easy to go with the flow of life, soon realizing that it has passed you by.  Daniel wanted to recapture the very essence of life itself, and Tom, by walking the Camino for his son, has begun to take back his own.

Although Sheen and Estevez have been open about their Christianity, this spiritual film is not only for the religious, as established by the method in which the film portrays the walk, itself.  Like the journey to Oz, each pilgrim seeks to reach the Way to St. James for a particular reason, not just to reclaim lost life.  But it is certainly to fill some sort of personal hole, and when the final destination is reached, the result is a scene of surprising beauty.  These uplifting moments are what make The Way so powerful and moving, despite a script that is anything but consistent.  Estevez, being a writer and director of relatively little experience (or critical acclaim), stages some scenes that are not wholly necessary, adding to the film’s running time and providing for a slightly sluggish mid-section.  Needless to say, the film also provides few surprises.

Yet the team of Estevez and Sheen has still crafted The Way into a genuinely touching, heartfelt experience, fulfilling its intent of affecting different people in different ways.  Sheen’s performance – sad, bitter, lost, restrained, and finally, reborn, is only one of the key aspects of the film that make it so fun to watch.  If Estevez had casted another actor in the lead role instead of his father, there is little doubt that the film would be far more impersonal and uninvolving than it truly is.  Because of this decision, it has hard to deem anything but good thoughts on The Way.  Hollywood expects this father-son team to fail, who are relying on the internet and word-of-mouth to carry their film across the country.  It is a new, budgetary alternative to display artistic thought for the masses, just as the film presents an alternate way to live.  The Way indeed.  Sheen and Estevez are doing something special here.  Get onboard.

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