Do you choose your life or do you live it? That’s a question posed to Tom (Martin Sheen), a complacent ophthalmologist who, when he isn’t seeing his patients is out on the golf course with his friends. In fact, that’s where he is when he learns about the death of his only child, Daniel (Emilio Estevez). The stubborn, independent-minded, adventurer was one day out on El Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage route that goes from France to Spain, when he was caught in a storm that eventually ended his life. Upon hearing this tragic news, Tom immediately boards a plane and flies to France to collect his son’s body. But rather than return home, he decides to undertake the 450-mile pilgrimage himself; his son’s ashes in tow. Along the way, he meets and becomes traveling companions with three pilgrims: Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), a happy-go-lucky Dutchman; Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), a bitter, cigarette-addicted Canadian; and Jack (James Nesbitt), an Irishman with writer’s block. Each has his or her own reason for being on El Camino, and each will have his/her life changed by the experience.
Written and directed by Emilio Estevez, The Way is a powerful and touching film that allows its audience members to feel as if they, too, are undertaking El Camino. It’s an up close and very personal cinematic experience. It isn’t often that I will say this, but watching The Way changed my life. It has inspired me. You see, years ago, during my undergraduate years at university, in a medieval art history class, we learned about the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, and back then I thought “wow, wouldn’t that be interesting to do?” And yet, I still haven’t done it. That will change, though. Plans are already underway to embark on El Camino, and do a pilgrimage around Japan’s Shikoku Island. After all, who wants to pass up such opportunities of a lifetime? As the film reminds us: We should live our lives; experience them.
As it has already been mentioned, during its 121-minute running time, The Way allows you to accompany the pilgrims from the beginning to the end of the trek, encountering everything from cramped sleeping conditions to bizarre acting innkeepers. The characters are all very different to each other, so naturally they sometimes get on each other’s nerves. It’s an unusual group, but they still manage to find strength and friendship with each other; and by the end they seem to belong together. (You almost don’t want them to end the trek, and go their separate ways.) My favorite of the foursome is Joost, a slightly overweight food enthusiast who is very sweet, generous, and enthusiastic. I was so impressed and enchanted by van Wageningen that as soon as I got home, I searched Netflix for his other movies. I’ll be getting his Winter in Wartime (2008) on Wednesday. Unger has been acting for several decades, and I’ve seen her in many films, including Crash (1996), The Game (1997), Payback (1999), The Salton Sea (2002), Silent Hill (2006) … but she’s never looked like this. She is so skinny and frail-looking that had I not recognized her voice, I wouldn’t have known who she was. Her performance, as usual, is amazing, but her emaciated frame kept taking me out of the moment. I hope she isn’t anorexic or sick. When we first encounter Jack, Nesbitt plays him as if he’s manic. Thankfully he calms down as the film goes on. Although his character is arrogant and a bit of an elitist, Nesbitt still manages to make him likable and relatable. Furthermore, he and Sheen play off of each other very well. Speaking of Sheen, how lucky is Estevez to have this master thespian as his father? TV’s West Wing, Apocalypse Now (1979), The Badlands (1973), The Dead Zone (1983), The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976) … How lucky can one guy get? Even though this is his son’s film, Sheen isn’t “slumming it.” On the contrary, his performance just gives further evidence that Sheen is one of this nation’s greatest actors.
With this film, Estevez has proven himself to be a fine filmmaker and writer. What I particularly loved about the screenplay is that it feels genuine and honest. There is warmth, humor, and a real sense of loss here and yet it never feels schmaltzy or contrived. In that, The Way feels more like a documentary than a feature film. Unlike some films of this nature, no one ever says “cutesy” or witty things just for the sake of saying them. Compare this to something that would star Jack Black, Steve Martin, or Owen Wilson – or maybe all three – and you will see what I’m talking about. Their films feel scripted; this one does not.
Even though I wouldn’t consider myself religious, The Way truly inspired me. And I’m sure that many people, from a variety of backgrounds and faiths, will feel the same. Catholics, non-practicing Catholics, spiritual people, history buffs, travel junkies … this is for you. After seeing this film, I feel invigorated to go on my own El Camino trek, and now I know some of the things I should pack: earplugs, to shut out the heavy snoring; a credit card; a tent, just in case; a raincoat; and probably a lot of hand sanitizer.
The Way is easily one of the Top 10 best films of 2011, and it deserves a much wider release. If it comes to your city, get out and see it. As I write this, Estevez is on the road, in his The Way bus, going from one city to the next promoting his very special film. Show the man some love, and do yourself a favor. See a film that matters.
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