In his noble fourth feature, “The Way,” director-writer Emilio Estevez is showing a growing maturity behind the camera. His previous work, “Bobby,” which played at TIFF in 2006, was an interesting Altman-esque film about a group of peoples’ lives colliding in L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel on the night Sen. Robert Kennedy was killed. More than anything, that film captured the terrible sadness that swept the nation when Kennedy died, because with him went the last seeds of hope for a bright and new America.
Though I have some issues with the film, the fact that Estevez captured that great sense of loss was an indication that he was on the path to to becoming a fine director. Clearly fearless of making tough-to-market films “The Way” clearly a labor of love for both him and his father, Martin Sheen, who is in nearly every scene.
Shot in sequence, the difficulties in making the film are apparent in every frame, with locations – and unbearable heat -- the sort that make tough demands on the cast and crew. The results are not perfect -- “The Way” meanders and bogs down in the middle, and a couple of sequences ring false -- but anchored by Sheen's galvanizing performance, it’s intriguing from beginning to end
Sheen is Dr. Tom Avery, an eye doctor working in California, a widower who is content to do his job, play golf with his buddies and make money, with a nearly 40-year-old son he is angry with for throwing away his life. The son, for his part, believes that life is to live and heads off to Europe to see a world he knows is out there and waiting for him.
While golfing with his colleagues, Avery receives a call from the French police telling him that his son has died in a storm and thet the body is waiting for him. Stunned, he journeys to Europe -- but once there he finds he cannot return right away, something needs to be done. His son died while walking the Camino de Santiago, and Avery decides he will do the walk himself, perhaps hoping to give himself some peace and begin to understand his son better.
While going through his son’s backpack, he comes across a photo of himself and, for the first time, he breaks – finally understanding his son is gone. He has the body cremated and decides he will spread the ashes along the walk, which ends at a church in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Though he begins alone, he is soon joined by three others, and they create a very odd family along the way, each walking for their own private reasons, each running away from some aspect of their lives, each cleansed by the walk. This unlikely quartet of misfits will forge a bond that will likely be with them for the rest of their days, as each will learn what it means to become a citizen of the world once again.
The movie belongs to Sheen, who exudes a decency in the film as a staunch conservative who takes a journey that will free him from the very confines he has created in his life.
But there also are strong supporting performances from Yorick Van Wageningen as a big-hearted and loud-mouthed Dutchman who likes Avery right away and sense his pain, and Deborah Kara Unger as a damaged woman who thinks she knows Avery but really has no clue.
Will the film play for mainstream audiences? The press screening was quiet and respectful, though the public screening went very well, probably out of affection for Sheen, whose performance could carry the film in theaters for a bit. But I had the feeling “The Way” is a bit out of sync with today’s audiences – a shame because it’s a worthy effort, and created directly from the heart.
(Photograph by David Alexanian)