The remarkable thing about “The Way” is that it works so much better than it should. Several aspects suggest the makings of a dud: It’s a story about spirituality with a protagonist who has none. The plot, in which well-to-do California opthamologist Tom (Martin Sheen) completes a pilgrimage started by his late son (Emilio Estevez, seen in flashbacks and also the writer-director), sounds like a fundamentally simplistic and sentimental bore. And hardly anyone really liked Estevez’s last movie, “Bobby.”
But “The Way” succeeds at dealing with profound themes of loss and regret by not overplaying its built-in dramatic hooks. Sheen delivers his best role in quite some time (maybe because he’s acting for his real-life son) by not letting his sadness turn into a trite theatrical showcase. Having less to do with religion than inner satisfaction, “The Way” retains the charming mold of a road movie to sustain Tom’s personal quest.
An early scene finds the doctor relaxing on the golf course when he gets a call about his son’s fate. Having lost touch with his aging offspring after he decided to quit the pursuit of his doctorate, Tom appears more shocked than immediately traumatized, an ambiguous state that registers in his uneasy expression. Unsure how to process the sudden tragedy, he travels to St. Jean Pied de Port, France to identify the body. Randomly inspired by his son’s attempt to complete The Way of Saint James, a pilgrimage to the alleged burial site of Saint James in northern Spain, Tom embarks on a journey to scatter his son’s ashes along the remainder of the route. The set-up is muted, and so is the follow-through. You get the sense that Estevez held back several layers of trite emotional manipulation to avoid ruining the exploratory mood.
During Tom’s travels, he encounters a series of international characters on the road for their own personal reasons, and slowly accumulates a new crowd of friends. These include a divorced Canadian woman (Deborah Kara Unger), an Irish author (James Nesbitt) and a goofy Dutch pothead (Yorick van Wageningen). Together, they head through the expansive European countryside, babbling on about their missed opportunities and life goals while observing their exotic surroundings and drinking fine wine. There are worse means of telling this tale, and Estevez doesn’t indulge them: At no point does Tom deliver an elaborate monologue, unload an ocean of tears or discover his mantra. The understated progress of “The Way” saves it from growing tried.
Estevez’s unhurried approach at times feels like directionless, and at 124 minutes it could lose a good half hour. However, Tom and his companions are innocuous to the point where they seem as real as the pilgrimage itself. A lesser movie would turn Sheen’s character into a basic Scrooge-type, constantly angry at the world until he learns to cheer up. Instead, Tom never becomes unlikable, so he has no need for total rehabilitation — he’s a smart man seeking closure and determined to find it. That trajectory hardly falters. At best, “The Way” succeeds as a gently moving travelogue. At worst, it’s a familiar mid-life crisis yarn, but even by those standards, it stops short of dropping to unbearably somber depths. Since Tom sticks to his secular guns, the only real miracle of “The Way” comes from the moments where it’s authentically moving.