Tom (Martin Sheen) is an American doctor who travels to France following the death of his adult son, Daniel (Emilio Estevez), killed in the Pyrenees during a storm while trekking The Camino de Santiago, also known as The Way of St. James. Tom’s initial purpose is to retrieve his son’s body. However, a combination of grief and homage to his son inspires Tom to journey on this path of pilgrims. While walking The Camino, Tom befriends others from around the world (Yorick Van Wageningen, Deborah Kara Unger, and James Nesbitt) who are also broken and looking for greater meaning in their lives.
The potentially appealing idea of real-life father & son, Martin Sheen & Emilio Estevez sharing the screen together is undermined by a wealth of trite, new age-y theatrics in this well-intentioned, yet misconceived drama directed by Emilio Estevez. Estevez’s follow-up to the equally dramatically inert 2006’s Bobby follows every trope of the road movie genre as well as the “man without faith learning to believe” subgenre.
Martin Sheen stars as Tom, an ophthalmologist of conservative beliefs whose estranged son Dan played by Emilio Estevez, has been killed while travelling the Camino de Santiago pilgrim route. Sheen gives the role his all, but proves to be no match for the overbearing schmaltz operating throughout the film. However, he does manage to register brief moments of genuine pathos to the character mainly in moments that utilize silence to convey his grief rather than the false sentiments that permeate the majority of the film. An early scene in which Tom visits his deceased son’s body in the morgue makes effective use of sparse dialogue interspersed with cross cutting to Estevez’s character, Daniel on the verge of meeting his tragic end. Tcheky Karyo, far too briefly appears as a French police captain in the aforementioned scene managing to be the sole actor capable of adequately delivering Estevez’s clumsily written lines with his dignity intact. The level of fluidity and competency displayed in Estevez’s direction all but disappears after this scene.
The remainder of The Way devolves at a rapid pace into a slog of walking montages, each one more laborious than the last, occasionally interrupted with scenes of recycled fish out of water humor of the “Oh that silly American” variety & trite philosophizing. Any undercurrents of honesty from the characters are undercut by direction that is at times awkwardly stilted and uneven. Hallmark card worthy pearls of wisdom such as (“You don’t choose a life; you live one”) are frequently dispensed out of our lead characters. The none too subtle homage to the Wizard of Oz (the emotionally hardened feminist-The Tin Man, the self-consciously overweight Dutchman-Cowardly Lion, and the intrusive writer-The Scarecrow) do nothing more than further illustrate how many more complexities those fantastical characters have compared to these flesh and blood characters.
The utter lack of substance offered to the relationship between Sheen and Estevez’s characters is the most disappointing aspect of this drama. Limited to brief flashbacks serving the purpose of delivering lazy exposition are the only moments we share with these two characters. The lone reason the viewer is given to invest in Tom’s plight is that he’s Daniel’s father therefore we as the viewer should automatically feel his pain. The overused motif of Tom seeing the ghost of Daniel offers zero dramatic impact as Daniel’s ghost remains silent at his every appearance. One verbal exchange between these two characters delving into the intricacies of their relationship would’ve made all the difference yet Daniel remains a silent cipher providing all of the dramatic value of a Where’s Waldo picture. The overbearingly precious and sentimental score by Tyler Bates accompanied by hilariously on the nose song cues from artists such as The Shins, Death Cab for Cutie, & Alanis Morissette do an additional disservice in providing any sliver of subtlety.
Fulfilling the role of Tom’s fellow travelers, only Deborah Kara Unger gets any substantive material to work with. However, her role is mired with an abundance of self consciously hardened women dialogue. By the time Unger and Sheen have a heart to heart discussing the abortion of her unborn daughter, eye rolling seemed to be the only viable option to respond to such an obvious tactic to tug at the heartstrings.Van Wageningen and Nesbitt fare even worse, registering as nothing more than broad strokes than fully realized characters with the former being an overweight hash smoker who learns he shouldn’t eat so much and the latter overcoming his writer’s block. The sights of stunning French country sides and cathedrals end up garnering more of dramatic response than the enlightenment any of these characters reach at the end of their journey.
On a positive note, every 30 minutes or so a joke connected eliciting a minor chuckle and Deborah Kara Unger continues to possess an alluring screen presence as she transitions from sex-pot femme fatale roles in films such as David Cronenberg’s Crash and David Fincher’s The Game into more demure roles. Despite Estevez sincerely wearing his heart on his sleeve through every frame of The Way, the film ultimately adds up to nothing more than a ham fisted Lifetime Movie of the Week.
The Way is currently being screening around the country in a grass roots campaign organized by Estevez and will be screening at The Neon beginning Oct. 21st, 2011.