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by Eric Kohn
September 17, 2010 8:11 AM
2 Comments
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Toronto Review | A Trip Worth Taking: Emilio Estevez's "The Way"

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.

2 Comments

  • Lori Suzanne Holetz | September 29, 2010 6:46 AMReply

    In the spring of 2002 I walked the Camino from Roncesvalles, just over the French/Spanish border and a hop from St. Jean Pied de Port. I avoided starting from St. Jean because I had heard too many stories of people getting lost in the dense fog in the Pyrenees and/or being killed. One man had just become lost on the mountain when I arrived on June 1st and was considered for dead, later showing up two-thirds of the way along weeks later, much to others surprise and amazement. I witnessed many unexplainable miracles and the depth of sacredness of this journey can not be described. I strongly caution criticism until you have walked it!

    It will be very interesting to see this film and how much of the movie reflects the true journey. I was sorry to read Shirley MacLaine’s personal story and how she was unable to find the spiritual experience she sought due to relentless paparazzi who were so obnoxious as to even pursue her into the hostel showers. Needless to say, I personally was very saddened for her, that her journey was not a reflection of the ordinary person’s experience… not at all. It is much, much more difficult and a test of strength and sheer willpower few will every be able to muster. It literally brought me to my knees in tears everyday, exhausted beyond words, only to rise the next early morning filled with vigor and excitement to start the next day’s pathway. It was most astonishing to experience that day after day…. to arrive each afternoon with nothing left to go on and feel so amazingly refreshed and healed the next morning…. “she”, as the Camino is considered female energies, always takes care of her pilgrims. She did not let me down, not once! There is nothing in the world to describe the journey west to the Santiago Cathedral… a bittersweet finishing point. Your are thrilled it is over, you are exhausted, mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually after a solid month of traversing the Northern Spanish countryside, sad that you will not be heading out again the next day with the new acquaintances you have met along “the way”.

    Eight years later, I see reflections of the Camino every day, lessons learned, priceless and definitely worth the “agony and the ecstasy” in so many countless ways. No doubt I am a much better person for it…. and not only did I find my own strength, courage, and the ability to allow nothing to stand in my way of my personal life path….within, I cherish a sense of accomplishment that can not be described and a peace of mind, heart, body, soul and spirit that is nothing short of “Godliness”. I thank the divine every day for the grace of my experience on The Camino de Compostella de Santiago, beneath and aligned with the Milky Way…. , and “the way of the stars” reflects and echos, hearkening me on, into my own blessed shamanic spiritual path, every day, in every way I walk.

    Congratulations on this accomplishment… it is enormous!
    Thank you so much for this cinema-graphic event… I can’t wait to see it!

    Blessed is the one who walks “the way”.... very blessed indeed!


    p.s. 124 minutes is nothing.... you try it for 5 weeks Mr. Kohn! I'm sorry shallowness is devoid of all aspects spiritual and sacred... you should not speak of "the sacred way", until you have truly found it and know what you are talking about! You might do some research next time to develop a more gentle attitude towards something millions of people down through the ages, from the time of the middle ages and the Knight's Templar who so righteously protected her pilgrims of the Camino, have journeyed with a true devotion to their relationship with their "God".

    p.s.s. Having walked this 500+ mile journey.....I find your review a bit offensive. It isn't "like directionless".... that is just the point of "the way"... to find "your way" amidst that single pathway that spiritually is directionless until you find "your way".

    This is not a simple "walk in the park"... why don't you give it a go and then you may rightly have an opinion on what is "unbearably somber depths".

    The question is..... do YOU have the courage to put your foot where your mouth is?

  • Lori Suzanne Holetz | September 29, 2010 6:42 AMReply

    In the spring of 2002 I walked the Camino from Roncesvalles, just over the French/Spanish border and a hop from St. Jean Pied de Port. I avoided starting from St. Jean because I had heard too many stories of people getting lost in the dense fog in the Pyrenees and/or being killed. One man had just become lost on the mountain when I arrived on June 1st and was considered for dead, later showing up two-thirds of the way along weeks later, much to others surprise and amazement. I witnessed many unexplainable miracles and the depth of sacredness of this journey can not be described. I strongly caution criticism until you have walked it!

    It will be very interesting to see this film and how much of the movie reflects the true journey. I was sorry to read Shirley MacLaine’s personal story and how she was unable to find the spiritual experience she sought due to relentless paparazzi who were so obnoxious as to even pursue her into the hostel showers. Needless to say, I personally was very saddened for her, that her journey was not a reflection of the ordinary person’s experience… not at all. It is much, much more difficult and a test of strength and sheer willpower few will every be able to muster. It literally brought me to my knees in tears everyday, exhausted beyond words, only to rise the next early morning filled with vigor and excitement to start the next day’s pathway. It was most astonishing to experience that day after day…. to arrive each afternoon with nothing left to go on and feel so amazingly refreshed and healed the next morning…. “she”, as the Camino is considered female energies, always takes care of her pilgrims. She did not let me down, not once! There is nothing in the world to describe the journey west to the Santiago Cathedral… a bittersweet finishing point. Your are thrilled it is over, you are exhausted, mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually after a solid month of traversing the Northern Spanish countryside, sad that you will not be heading out again the next day with the new acquaintances you have met along “the way”.

    Eight years later, I see reflections of the Camino every day, lessons learned, priceless and definitely worth the “agony and the ecstasy” in so many countless ways. No doubt I am a much better person for it…. and not only did I find my own strength, courage, and the ability to allow nothing to stand in my way of my personal life path….within, I cherish a sense of accomplishment that can not be described and a peace of mind, heart, body, soul and spirit that is nothing short of “Godliness”. I thank the divine every day for the grace of my experience on The Camino de Compostella de Santiago, beneath and aligned with the Milky Way…. , and “the way of the stars” reflects and echos, hearkening me on, into my own blessed shamanic spiritual path, every day, in every way I walk.

    Congratulations on this accomplishment… it is enormous!
    Thank you so much for this cinema-graphic event… I can’t wait to see it!

    Blessed is the one who walks “the way”.... very blessed indeed!


    p.s. 124 minutes is nothing.... you try it for 5 weeks Mr. Kohn! I'm sorry shallowness is devoid of all aspects spiritual and sacred... you should not speak of "the sacred way", until you have truly found it and know what you are talking about! You might do some research next time to develop a more gentle attitude towards something millions of people down through the ages, from the time of the middle ages and the Knight's Templar who so righteously protected her pilgrims of the Camino, have journeyed with a true devotion to their relationship with their "God". This is not a simple "walk in the park"... why don't you give it a go and then you may rightly have an opinion on what is "unbearably somber depths".

    p.s.s. It isn't "like directionless".... that is just the point of "the way"... to find "your way" amidst that single pathway that spiritually is directionless until you find "your way".
    This is not a simple "walk in the park"... why don't you give it a go and then you may rightly have an opinion on what is "unbearably somber depths". The question is..... do YOU have the courage to put your foot where your mouth is?