Tom (Martin Sheen) walks the Santiago de Compostela in The Way.
If you've ever seen a road trip movie, you know what you're going to get out of Emilio Estevez's The Way. Just because the characters travel by foot doesn't mean it doesn't follow a very familiar and pretty stale formula. Yet, The Way isn't a total waste of time. It's a very pleasant, heart-warming film, and the rural Spanish setting is beautiful. There's nothing subtle about it (not exactly a strength of Estevez' directorial canon), but by the end, you'll be pleased you went on this journey.
Tom (Martin Sheen) is a successful opthamologist and widower from California. He has a somewhat strained relationship with his son, Daniel (Estevez), but other than that, he's got a nice, quiet life. That's tragically shattered when he gets a call from a French police officer telling him Daniel died in a hiking accident. When he goes to collect the body, he learns Daniel was preparing to walk the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James. It's a highly spiritual path that attracts thousands of "pilgrims" every year, and as a tribute to his son, Tom decides to do the pilgrimage and scatter Daniel's ashes along the way.
It takes Tom a while to accept what has happened. He starts out doing the walk almost begrudgingly, but it ends up being quite a profound experience. Along the way, he connects with three individuals. Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), a Dutchman, is walking to drop a few pounds. Jack (James Nesbitt) is seeking inspiration to overcome his writer's block. And Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger) is on a personal and somewhat mysterious journey to seek spiritual atonement. All three of these characters are interesting, and the ways they help Tom open up and embrace his journey is lovely. They also come full circle, and though their arcs aren't as compelling as Tom's, the film's final 15 minutes bring about a great many emotions, both within the characters and the viewers.
Getting to that point, however, is a bit of a chore. We have to endure every possible mishap you could imagine—a lost pack, a stolen pack, an arrest, and a really creepy innkeeper, among other things. These moments aren't handled poorly, but there isn't anything in the first three quarters of the film that isn't already too familiar. Yes, there are a few decent laughs, but not much else.
I liked Martin Sheen's performance quite a bit. For the most part, he internalizes his grief, but it does coming spilling out of him on more than one occasion, and his transformation from a comfortable California doctor to an adventurous traveler is as believable as it is integral to the overall success of the film (as minor as that success might be). I'm pretty unfamiliar with his three companions, but their performances are all admirable.
Estevez's writing is a little heavy-handed. He spoon feeds us a lot, which began to get under my skin after a while. People watching this movie are adults, and by and large, I think we can handle a little subtlety, but the writer/director wants to make sure we understand the significance and symbolism of every single event along the way. It's probably the film's biggest fault.
I'd recommend The Way, but only for Martin Sheen's performance and the beautiful cinematography. It's a minor film, but not one that leaves you frustrated or anything. Worthy of a rainy day rental, for sure.