Tom (Martin Sheen) is an American doctor who comes to St. Jean Pied de Port, France to collect the remains of his adult son (Emilio Estevez), killed in the Pyrenees in a storm while walking the Camino de Santiago, also known as The Way of Saint James. Rather than return home, Tom decides to embark on the historical pilgrimage to honor his son’s desire to finish the journey. What Tom doesn’t plan on is the profound impact the journey will have on him and his 'California Bubble Life".
Spending nearly two hours watching a surly, grieving man on a pilgrimage through France and Spain in an attempt to reconnect with his dead son may not seem an attractive proposition. But The Way transcends that grim-sounding premise as an elegant, gently affecting and wryly humorous film thanks to the talents of father-and-son duo Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez.
Estevez wrote, directs and co-stars in the movie which is steeped in the history and rituals of the 1,000-year-old route from the Pyrenees to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in North-Western Spain, which thousands of pilgrims walk each year.
Sheen plays Tom, a dour ophthalmologist in California who’s playing golf when he gets a call informing him that his son Daniel (Estevez) had died in a sudden and unexpected blizzard on the first day of the pilgrimage.
It’s soon revealed that father and son had been estranged since Tom’s wife died and 39-year-old Daniel had embarked on the trip against his father’s wishes. Tom flies to the Pyrenees to collect Daniel’s backpack and belongings and arranges to have him cremated, then decides to complete the 800 km trek in his son’s place, scattering the ashes en route.
Along the way he acquires, somewhat reluctantly, three travelling companions. The most entertaining is Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), a chirpy, pot-smoking portly Dutchman who sees the odyssey as a way of shedding kilos before his brother’s wedding.
Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger) is a sharp tongued, cynical and emotionally fragile Canadian blonde who vows to quit smoking when she reaches their destination and is trying to get over a bad marriage and a decision that still torments her. She insists on calling Tom 'Boomer" (as in baby boomer), initially oblivious about why he’s embarked on this mission.
Jack (James Nesbitt) is a loquacious, extroverted Irishman who says he’s writing a book about the famous route but admits to suffering from writer’s block.
There are several dramatic interludes but some passages resemble a picturesque travelogue as the quartet traverses the countryside, pausing occasionally to rest and chat with fellow pilgrims and the locals.
The haunted, taciturn Tom isn’t an easy man to like or understand at times, especially when one of his few lengthy statements is a rant that’s riddled with contempt. But Sheen infuses the character with a fair degree of humanity and pathos.
Estevez gives us glimpses of Daniel’s personality as he appears briefly in flashbacks and in his father’s imagination. As Joost, van Wageningen imbues the film with much of its humour and spark, uttering epithets such as 'God save the Queen and her fascist regime." Unger nails the difficult role of a woman who is both outwardly tough and inwardly damaged.
The gifted Nesbitt struggles with his Irish caricature—did Estevez really need to have him talk about leprechauns and the misdeeds of the Catholic Church in Ireland?—and the character comes across as a tiresome bore, not the wisecracking presence which I think the director intended.
It’s Estevez’s fifth outing as a director following Bobby, 1996’s The War at Home (in which he played an emotionally shattered Vietnam veteran, with Sheen as his dad), Wisdom and Men at Work.
While the film does devote a fair bit of time in explaining the origins, symbolism and traditions of Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James), as a spiritual journey it’s rarely preachy. The scenery is often breathtaking, captured by director of photography Juanmi Azpiro, but trimming 15 minutes from the narrative would have given The Way a sharper focus and a snappier pace.