The Way is a quiet film with a quiet soundtrack that emphasizes the quiet introspection of its main character, Tom (Martin Sheen). But do not equate “quiet” with “boring.” This is a compelling film with a compelling story, told against the backdrop of the beautiful Pyrenees.
Tom is an ophthalmologist who has trouble seeing things clearly. He has chosen a traditional path for his life: He attended a respectable college, entered a respectable career, and reared what he thought would be a respectable family. His son, Daniel (Emilio Estevez), has taken a different way. “I want to see Spain, Palau, Tibet!” he exclaims to his father during what will be their last day together. “Come with me,” he pleads. But Tom is too practical. He has his ophthalmology practice to consider. Leave for two months or more? Just to wander along a mountain trail? When he shouts back about choice and accountability, Daniel responds tersely, “You don’t choose a life, Dad. You live one.”
The two part angrily, but it is abundantly clear that Tom loves and misses his son. In one early scene, Tom’s receptionist informs him that Daniel has left a message while Tom was busy with a patient. Tom’s disappointment is palpable. “Did he leave a number this time?” he asks anxiously. “Do you know where he is?” Any parent who has been estranged from an adult child knows this feeling and can relate to Tom’s despair.
The next phone call is the one no parent ever wants to receive: Daniel is dead. While setting off to walk across the Pyrenees along the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile pilgrimage also known as “The Way of Saint James,” Daniel was caught in a freak storm. Tom must fly to Spain to identify the body and bring Daniel home. When the coroner suggests that cremation is an easier way to transport the body back to America, Tom decides that he will help Daniel complete the journey by walking the path himself and depositing a handful of Daniel’s ashes at each way station.
Along the way Tom meets several other pilgrims, each traveling The Way for seemingly practical reasons. Joost (Yorick van Wagengingen) is a jovial Dutchman who simply wants to lose weight for his brother’s wedding. Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger) is a flirtatious cougar who wants to quit smoking at the end of the journey. Jack (James Nesbitt) is a journalist looking for a good story.
All these characters have deeper spiritual conflicts that they have avoided facing. The film becomes a journey of introspection, self-discovery, and companionship as they travel not together, exactly, but side by side. Tom’s self-deception is perhaps the most pronounced, and he makes the deepest discoveries. Several times Tom sees Daniel, or imagines he sees him, in a crowd or on a hill, encouraging him and urging him forward. Daniel’s great desire was for Tom to accompany him on this journey. By dying, Daniel has found a way to make it happen.
The Way is a film about the relationship between a father and a son, made by a father and a son. Emilio Estevez, who wrote, directed, produced, and performs in The Way, seems to be Sheen’s less wayward offspring. One can’t help but think about the heartache Sheen must be experiencing in real life as he has watched his more celebrated son, Charlie Sheen, blow up in public over the past year. The younger Sheen was finally fired from his successful TV show, “Two and a Half Men,” because of problems associated with accusations about drugs, alcohol, and extramarital sex. The elder Sheen’s own heartache as a father is apparent in his portrayal of Tom, a man tortured by the way he said his last goodbye to a son whose way of life he did not approve. He plays the role with restraint, but his body language and facial expressions effectively convey his character’s deep emotions.
Tom tells himself he is walking The Way for Daniel, but as one pilgrim wisely tells him, “You walk The Way for yourself. Only yourself.” This is true of life, of course. We make the life we live. Another character tells Tom, “I wanted to be a bullfighter. My father wanted me to be a lawyer.” He blames his father for his failure to choose a more satisfying path, but it was his own choice to put his father’s approval ahead of his own happiness. The essence of good parenting is to provide protection and opportunity without forcing children into a way that is not their way. And above all—never say goodbye in anger.