After the death of his son Daniel (Emilio Estevez), American doctor Tom (Martin Sheen) travels to France to collect his remains. Tom learns that Daniel was killed in a storm on the Pyrenees mountains while trekking the Camino de Santiago, or The Way of St. James. In honor of his son, Tom embarks on the historical pilgrimage and learns that “The Way” will serve greater purpose. On his quest he meets Joost (Yorick van Wageningen) – a dutchmen looking to ditch a few pounds, Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger) – a Canadian looking to kick a nicotine addiction and Jack (James Nesbit) – an Irish writer trying to move beyond writer’s block. But what transpires turns out to be more than a long walk from France to Spain, instead turning into a journey of healing and self-discovery.
Intially, Tom’s distressed and regrets the distance his relationship to Daniel had and develops (or perhaps increases) a strong and focused facade. Problem is, Tom is grieving, yet he comes off in an overly brash matter earning various criticisms for his “American” mannerisms. Sometimes he’s stiff, cold and plain rude and other times he’s sensitive and kind. It’s a balancing act of personality that evens out by the end. Sheen does a nice job with “Tom” as a character and at moments the acting range is impressive and at other moments, it’s a bit less than desirable. For the impression, Sheen’s intonation, facial expressions (the tension and lack thereof) and eye lines to the other actors are quite nice, but then come the moments when the delivery of the script seems artificial or uncommited (in some of his “rude” bouts, a few lines seem forced).
Alternatively, The Way explores the interpersonal relationships between each of the characters (Tom-Sarah, Tom-Joost, Tom-Jack, etc.) in brilliant fashion. From their introductions to the end, relationships evolve and develop meaning and authenticity. The introduction of each character to Tom is comical, explosive or dismissive for example, Sarah introduces herself as Canadian before tossing around the cliche “eh.” Then she launches a verbal attack on Tom – whom she calls “Boomer” – on the baby boomer generation, while questioning his motives for embarking on the Camino de Santiago, she assumes he’s selfish and in need of personal gain. Tom and Sarah’s relationship evolves following an intimate glimpse into Sarah’s past, where she identifies with Tom and essentially discovers her true meaning for taking The Way.
Of course, relationship building doesn’t occur without a solid, well-written script to begin with. In a flashback moment Daniel says to Tom, “You don’t choose a life dad, you live one.” It’s probably the most memorable and inspiring line spoken in The Way, yet it’s also one of the most harrowing (because how many people, later in life wish they would have done everything they ever watned?). On his journey, Tom meets several people who never lived their life causing him to take an introspective look at his own. These people provide accomodations to travelers primarily as hostel owners. Tom asks one woman if she ever travelled the Camino de Santiago and with regret she says, “When I was young, I was too busy and now that I’m older, I’m too tired.” These individuals inspire Tom because their excuses or shortcomings in life, he realizes, are what Daniel protested against. But, don’t begin to think The Way is full of sorrow and despair (sure there are moments of it), but the score and some of the dialogue generally soften the blow and make the film presentable in a quirky, upbeat and hopeful sense. For example, after Sarah’s intimate, heartbreaking confession, “Jack from Ireland” is introduced screaming and kicking in a field, in an attempt to bring his writer’s block to an end, soonafter he delivers a line, “Finally, an American without an opinion, take a picture.”
It’s commendable how a story can be told on a historically religious path without being overly religious. In fact, despite religion always being in the background, it never becomes a true focal point until the beautiful but heavy-handed, overworked scene in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where the characters become consumed with religious amazement that simply borderlines on excess. Despite this one moment, The Way is full of beauty that’s balanced. There is one scene where all four characters are walking away from the camera, each with a different walk reflecting their mood – it’s a brilliant shot (and great acting). And there is the staging of Tom’s position – he walks in the front as the arrogant American, then walks in the back after his drunken tirade and eventually, they all come to walk together. The cinematography by Juan Miguel Azpiroz is breathtaking and aids in the creation of several of these memorable, tender, genuine moments and helps make The Way seem very real.
Despite much of its success over the course of the run time, The Way isn’t likely to be a film remembered beyond the minds of a select few after the credits roll and that’s unfortunate. It’s one of those films you can truly appreciate for its technicalities but will likely collect dust on a shelf until memories of it are jogged, meaning someone will mention it in a conversation and it’ll be one of those, “Oh yeah, I remember that movie.” It’s a good, solid piece of work, but not great because it lacks that extra spark that tends to make some movies timeless. The Way is not yet rated, runs approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes.