By Gary Murray
Starring Martin Sheen, Deborah Kara Unger, James Nesbitt, Yorick van Wageningen and Emilio Estevez
Written and directed by Emilio Estevez
Running time 115 min
MPAA Rating R
Selig Film Rating Matinee
While Charlie Sheen has been making a notorious name for himself in the last few years, his brother Emilio Estevez has been steadily working on different projects. The actor has been crafting a career on both sides of the camera. His latest is one of the most self-reflective films of 2011 and is called The Way.
The story is of Tom (Martin Sheen) an eye doctor with a wayward son (Emilio Estevez). Where dad is more a stoic headstrong man of science, the son is much more of a free spirit, blowing off college to experience life. On a golfing outing, Dad gets the kind of news that no father wants to hear. His son is dead.
He travels to Europe and finds that his son died on the first day of the walking pilgrimage of the Camino de Santiago, a trek to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. As Dad meets the locals, he discovers a little bit about the pilgrimage and how it changes lives. The walkers collect stamps from different missions and places on their journey, filling up a passport style book to prove the accomplishment.
Tom has his son cremated and decides to take the 800 km (500 mi.) transverse across the countryside. Along the way, Dad leaves bits of his sons’ ashes on the trails.
At first he befriends Joost ( Yorick van Wageningen) an overweight Dutchman with an appetite for food and drugs. He is taking on the Camino to loose weight. He likes to stop often to partake in wine and roasted lamb. He has a ‘superior’ Dutch guide book that tells of different things to see along the way.
Then they hook up with Canadian Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger) who is taking the pilgrimage to help her give up smoking. Once she gets to Galicia, she will put down the smokes forever. Lastly the group finds writer Jack (James Nesbitt) a travel reporter who has lost his love of crafting words. He is fascinated by both the route and the travelers and eventually wants to write about Tom.
These four each have a mission as they go from town to town, discussing life and discovering different aspects of themselves along the trail. Along the way they meet other travelers and people who live along the trail. Some offer hospitality and others are just crazy. The four have a confrontation with some gypsies and find that not everyone is as they seem.
The entire exercise of The Way plays more like an independent version of The Wizard of Oz but without the flying monkeys. At any given moment, I expected to hear “We’re off to See the Wizard” break out from the group.
Of the four principal leads, Deborah Kara Unger stands head and shoulders above her co-stars. She is the bitter woman who thinks she has Tom figured out, someone she distains just because he is an American. Her vitriolic zeal makes from some gleeful moments, wearing her distain for James Taylor on her tongue. James Nesbitt as our writer and chronicler of the event has both a wide eyed innocence and a bitter ‘seen it all’ attitude. He is more duplicitous in his nature, keeping something from the others.
The film is a showcase for Martin Sheen and he is just okay in the role of Tom. He has the stoic aspects of the character down, just not the softer edge. It becomes a Herculean task to feel any empathy for him. His is driven to accomplish the task for his son and the ending twist never resonates.
The Way feels so much like a vanity project, something done to win awards more than to entertain. While writer/director Emilio Estevez gives the world a stunning travelogue about something most have never heard of, it doesn’t resonate into epic storytelling. It is a film of wants hopes and dreams but not a powerful motion picture.