Tom (Martin Sheen) and his son, Daniel (Emilio Estevez), have had their differences. Tom is a well-respected dentist with a traditional lifestyle while Daniel has always embraced a more free-spirited, nomadic life. The two have a healthy respect for each other but clearly that has not always been the case. But when Tom learns that Daniel has died while on an adventure in France, he begins to seriously question the way in which he related to his son. After retrieving Daniel’s ashes, he decides to hike the Camino de Santiago, a trek that takes experienced travelers weeks and sometimes months to traverse. Along the path, he comes in contact with a rag tag group of fellow travelers, each with their own reasons for making the journey and each looking for companionship and closure in one way or another.
Everything I liked about The Way boiled down to the performance of Martin Sheen. Sheen has certainly done better in his esteemed career but this is the type of showing that serves as a strong reminder of how good a given actor really is when he wants to be. This is a very complex, vulnerable character and Sheen is able to display a great range of emotion without ever allowing any of them to become overdone or to even take precedence over the other. Tom is in constant conflict with himself and Sheen brings that to the forefront beautifully. It’s a meaty, heavy role that offers Sheen a chance to shine, an opportunity of which he takes full advantage. I only wish that some of his contemporaries would give us a similar sign of their respective abilities. (Are you listening, De Niro and Pacino?)
Unfortunately for Sheen, virtually every other aspect of this movie is a mess. Estevez makes some brutally generic choices regarding the narrative of his film and the post-production decisions were even worse. Case in point, the soundtrack (something I always focus on for better or for worse) feels like a, “Recycled Collection of Hits from the Early 2000s”, like Estevez has kept a journal of his favorite songs from movies he’s seen over the last decade and wanted to cram them all into his film. Perhaps I’m being overly picky but this rubbed me the wrong way and cheapened the overall impact of The Way.
These troublesome choices behind the camera, though, could be overlooked if not for the painful missteps taking place on screen, courtesy of Sheen’s supporting actors and their excruciatingly cliché characters. Yorick van Wageningen (as a loud-mouthed, chubby Dane) and James Nesbitt (as a haunted travel writer) both have scenes that aren’t horrible but these are few and far between and they are always trumped by the cringe-inducing way in which Deborah Kara Unger (an embittered divorcee) sulks through every single scene. I haven’t seen enough of Unger to know whether this is typical of her acting abilities or if she was just following orders but regardless, this performance would have ruined a great movie, let alone a borderline acceptable one like this. All of these characters are as paper-thin as you can get and all of the actors seem to be in a competition to determine who can turn in the most unrealistic, forced delivery of a would-be sympathetic backstory.
I came away from The Way feeling almost angry for Sheen, who routinely has his legs cut out from under him by his surroundings. There are some appealing landscape shots here and there but again, the journey through the French countryside isn’t worth it if you have to travel with infuriating companions.