By Eric Kohn | Indiewire October 7, 2011 at 2:26AM
"The Way" has the makings of a movie that shouldn't work, but it navigates many of those potential faults with surprising competence.
Emilio Estevez's first writing-directing venture since the poorly received "Bobby" has no complex historical or ideological framework. Instead, it favors a mopey, simplistic tale of mourning and catharsis. However, he treats the drama with a straight-faced, utterly earnest approach with dual respect for the material and the audience's awareness of how it can go wrong. By playing it straight, "The Way" never goes off the deep end.
From the start, the challenge of telling this story without drowning it in sorrow is complicated heavy-handed sentimentalism. During a round of golf, successful ophthalmologist and divorcee Tom (Estevez's dad, Martin Sheen) learns that his adult son Daniel (represented in flashbacks and as a phantom presence in certain scenes) abruptly died during a hiking accident in Spain. The tragedy is worsened by the entrepreneurial Tom's estrangement from Daniel following his decision to drop his graduate studies and tour the world.
Recovering Daniel's body in the Pyrenees mountain range, Tom discovers Daniel had recently embarked on the spiritual journey across the Santiago de Compostela, an 800-kilometer trail along the northwest coast of Spain. With his son's ashes in hand, Tom abruptly decides to complete the trip.
The bulk of "The Way" then comprises of Tom's soul-searching voyage, which finds him leaving ash at key points while gathering a few friends along the way. These include a struggling Irish journalist (James Nesbitt), a plump stoner from Amsterdam (Yorick van Geningen) and a Canadian drifter (Deborah Kara Unger). Their makeshift team forms a neatly diverse crowd seemingly lifted from the same pat guidebook that romanticizes the journey in question.
Nevertheless, Estevez doesn't overplay these secondary characters, only hinting at their colorful personalities while using them to support Tom's greater mission. The premise repeatedly courts cliché and backs down: Never, for example, does Tom fall in love with his sole female companion or get extensively drawn into another conundrum that helps him solve his own. Instead, "The Way" drifts along with an elegant patience made especially bearable by Sheen's unassuming performance, a neither blatantly gruff or extensively sorrowful role, even when expectations might call for it.
At the same time, Estevez gives plenty of reason for doubters to fire away. With a few too many montages set to pop music, "The Way" stumbles whenever it overstates the obvious emotions in play, particularly with a continuing reliance on mind-numbingly superficial observations. "You don't choose a life, dad," Daniel tells his father, "you live one." That Hallmark stunner is only matched by a priest's declaration to Tom that "miracles happen out here." Yikes.
Fortunately, the chatter takes a backseat to the personalized elements of Tom's odyssey. Estevez's narrative is dominated by master shots of the landscape capturing Tom and his pals wandering through the wilderness and small villages, exploring ancient cathedrals and local traditions. That decision lends a documentary quality to the journey, but the plot gives it a precise context not solely based around touristic indulgences. Instead, Esetevez has made a travelogue that celebrates the act of traveling, both literally and otherwise, regardless of the destination.
criticWIRE grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? "The Way" premiered to mixed reactions at last year's Toronto International Film Festival and opens theatrically in New York and L.A. today. Its sentimental material makes it a tough commercial prospect, although Sheen may help sell the movie to older audiences and the spiritual context could play well in the heartland as the movie continues to open elsewhere.