The Way (2011)

October 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Martin Sheen and fellow travelers trek along "The Camino"

Written and Directed by Emilio Estevez

Starring Martin Sheen, Deborah Kara Unger, James Nesbitt, Yorick Van Wageningen and Emilio Estevez

Martin Sheen stars in son Emilio Estevez’s latest directorial effort, an intimate and steady-handed road trip dramedy called “The Way”, based upon The Camino De Santiago, or the Path of Saint James. It’s a pilgrimage many people take, not for a religious purpose, but a deeper, personal and spiritual purpose. It’s a path that can start anywhere, but most people the point of origin is the Camino Frances, which crosses the Pyrenees Mountains along the Spanish-French border starting in St. Jean Pied de Port.

The film is based on personal religious experiences and desires of the elder Sheen and his son Emilio, who turned their spiritual yearnings into this family-fest of a film, which Estevez wrote and directed himself. It’s about a man who has no direction in life, played by Estevez, who comes to see the Camino as a path towards self-discovery. Tragically, he immediately perishes barely a day into the trek due to unfortunately bad weather and awkward terrain. After his father, Sheen, comes to collect his son’s body, he is encouraged by fellow travelers, the local officer and so on that the Camino is a worthy journey. Between these urgings and the idea that walking the path himself would be a worthy final tribute to his son and a form of respecting his son’s wishes, he carries his son’s ashes and walks the Camino, sprinkling or placing portions of the ashes along the path as he goes.

The Way starts out pretty slowly, a maudlin tale of a conservative father who didn’t understand his wanderlusting son and the kind of film that screamed “a bit too personal to connect with mass audiences” but the Sheen/Estevez clan hasn’t survived and thrived in Hollywood for multiple generations and forms for no reason! Very quickly the film picks up the pace and shapes itself into a refreshing take on the road trip comedy genre as Sheen meets a string of fellow travelers, eventually forming a mismatched clan including the lovable gentle bear-like Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), a man who aims to lose a considerable amount of weight in time for an upcoming wedding he will be attending; Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger) a middle-aged American woman using the path as an excuse to quit smoking and Jack (James Nesbitt) a travel writer covering the Camino as part of a new book he’s been commissioned to write.

In some respects there are many standard issue tropes at play. Sheen is surly throughout the film, maintaining a surprisingly consistent attitude of disengagement and lack of patience with others. It’s an impressive performance given his far friendlier characters he’s known for, such as President Jeb Bartlett on “the West Wing” or his scenery-chewing turn as the main villain in the early 90’s comic adaptation “Spawn”. Here he’s eerily subdued, playing a man already emotionally stunted who is stricken with grief over the loss of a son he didn’t connect with, but whom he still clearly loved very much.

Yorick van Waginengen steals the film as the gregarious and lovable Joost, the perfect antidote to Sheen’s character’s morose qualities. Joost is a good hearted, intelligent man who loves life in all its aspects and forms, accepting Sheen even as Sheen rejects him. Their paths continue to cross, despite Sheen’s best efforts to maintain a solo effort for his journey and Waginengen displays an impressive ability to be both comic relief and a sensitive kindred spirit who doesn’t understand Sheen’s darkness, but respects it.

Deborah Kara Unger is alright as a neutral female character, the soul woman in the main cast. She isn’t played for romance or as a sex object, merely as a countering voice in the group.

Nesbitt rounds out the cast as the traveling Irishman, very animated, highly opinionated and boisterous, almost theatrical in his demeanor, but still very much a 3-dimensional character who’s sharp reactions to some of Sheen’s more vulnerable, dickish moments hints at the depths this film goes to.

The Way is a gutsy film as it doesn’t stick to any one genre and yet it all works. The ending and individual “adventures” along the path are rather predictable but that’s okay, because the journey the characters take isn’t. Estevez does a few hammy tricks like inserting images of his ghostly self along the way to evoke Sheen’s memory of his deceased son, maintaining a sobering sensibility no matter how light hearted the events get at times throughout the film.

In the end, The Way is your standard issue road trip dramedy that picks and pulls from many genres to give us a broad perspective on a very personal story, but that’s to be expected from film makers with a combined 75 years or so of Hollywood success between them.

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