Mark Reviews Movies

The Way


1 Star (out of 4)

Director: Emilio Estevez

Cast: Martin Sheen, Deborah Kara Unger, Yorick van Wageningen, James Nesbitt, Tchéky Karyo

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic elements, drug use and smoking)

Running Time: 1:55

Release Date: 10/7/11

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 6, 2011

Each character in The Way is walking down an assigned path to a definite destination with clear and stated reasons for doing so. With these parameters, the scenario is basically set in stone, and yet writer/director Emilio Estevez' movie seems obsessed with dismissing them all for a meandering exercise in wanderlust for its own sake.

The movie comes across as, at best, a travelogue or, at worst, a two-hour advertisement encouraging participation in a trek that—at least based on the evidence here—has become a tourist attraction with plenty of scenic vistas for your spiritual consideration, humble lodgings that surely take whatever form of payment you might have, and an official souvenir passport that various local merchants will stamp as proof that you were there. Certainly the experience of walking the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) itself is an important one to people, but the sappy, calculatedly ambiguous The Way only encourages cynicism in the face of its presentation of the movie's subject.

Martin Sheen plays Tom, an ophthalmologist with his own practice and a steady stream of patients. On a relaxing day at the golf course, he receives a phone call from a police captain overseas. Tom's only son has died, and he must travel to a small village in France to identify and claim the body.

Through flashbacks, we learn that Tom's son Daniel (Estevez) gave up on his education so that he could travel the world, earning the knowledge that so many other learned men and women have gained doing the same. He wanted his father to come along, and while Tom may have some regrets of not traveling much, this is the life he's chosen, he tells his son. "You don't choose a life," Daniel counters; "You live one." Fortunately, most of Estevez' later dialogue doesn't have quite the bumper-sticker mentality of this doozy, though it does have its own problems, mainly that almost everything the characters say is blandly expositional.

Once Tom arrives in France, the helpful police captain (Tchéky Karyo) informs him that Daniel's last stop came shortly after his first stop on the Camino de Santiago; he fell victim to an unanticipated storm. The captain further explains with gusto in the face of tragedy some more information about the Way of St. James: It is an ancient route of significance as a traditional pilgrimage path for Christians to pay homage to the remains of St. James, which are believed to be entombed in the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. With this information and his son's backpack in hand, Tom starts off to complete the journey Daniel did not, scattering his ashes and spotting his ghost along the way.

Tom walks a lot over the course of the movie, and it's curious that Juan Miguel Azpiroz' cinematography doesn't take advantage of the on-location terrain. Estevez, like Tom's character, seems in a hurry to get from point A to point B, rarely stopping along the way. It cannot be too much to ask that when spending so much time on a historical road littered with landmarks that we might have just a little time to admire the sights.

Instead, Estevez' script takes on an episodic structure marked by Tom's encounters with three fellow travelers. There's Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), a collection of Dutch stereotypes (It's kind of shocking, actually, how many there are) who is walking the 800-kilometer road to lose weight, even though he spends all of his downtime eating lavish meals. The irony, of course, does not pass by Tom's notice, who brings it up constantly or, at least, the few times he does speak. There's also Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), a Canadian with the goal of quitting smoking once she reaches the cathedral, although we also discover she is escaping an abusive marriage. Finally is Jack (James Nesbitt), an Irish author with a bad case of writer's block who happens to share the same first name of the author (Jack Hitt) from whose book Estevez' screenplay is based. He serves the purpose of waxing philosophical on the true nature of the pilgrim and to add a meta level to the whole affair once he begins writing about his experiences with his three companions.

Their conversations are roundabout, mostly consisting of curiosity about Tom's motivation and stressing the same points about the same traits of each of the characters. Their misadventures on the path amount to little more than comic interludes and obstacles, like when a gypsy boy steals Tom's pack or Tom's drunken outburst against the company he's keeping, which shouldn't be funny but is hamfistedly handled by the screenplay. Whatever lessons these flatly drawn characters might be learning from their long walk are impenetrable.

The late Gene Siskel had his litmus test for judging the essential worth of any movie: "Is this film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch?" The Way raises the stakes of that proposition, because there is certainly no way a documentary about father Sheen and son Estevez walking the Camino de Santiago would be less interesting than this drivel.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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