The Way – 2011

Directed by Emilio Estavez
Starring Martin Sheen, Emilio Estavez, Deborah Kara Unger, James Nesbitt, Yorick van Wageningen, Tchéky Karyo
Screenplay Emilio Estavez

The thing that sets some actors and actresses apart is how they are able to exist on-screen when there is no dialogue.  Do they have to natter incessantly, like, say, Woody Allen? Can they sit back, let other actors have their moments and understand that their own moment is expressed in the act of just listening, looking or just thinking?  Sheen has long ago given up the past time of scenery chewing.  Anyone who watched his performance in Apocalypse Now, or even Wall Street, saw that he has been comfortable  letting others vacillate while he sits back and ponders his next move, or not.

The Way finds Sheen, 71, at top form.  As Tom Avery, his look at the start of the movie is appropriate for his age: on the golf course, weakly hacking away.  He gets a call just before a swing.  He completes the swing and then answers.  The message he gets from Spain is enough to send him staggering, on to the golf cart and back towards the clubhouse.  His son, Daniel (Estavez) has died while on a journey in the Pyrenees.  The journey, known as the Way of St. James is one of those things that people do when they aren’t stuck at home, working their jobs, and accumulating stuff.  Avery immediately stops his life to fly to Spain and, he thinks, pick up his son for the trip home.  After some contemplation, he decides that instead, he will cremate his son, and carry his remains the rest of the way, spreading bits of him, here and there.

When he is asked by Captain Henri (Karyo) why he is making the journey, he says it’s for his son.  This answer does not satisfy the kind Captain, who has held on to his son, and his son’s belongs, since informing him of his son’s demise.  The Captain had lost a son too.  You need, he says, to take this journey for yourself.  Avery, clearly not interested in self-evaluation, doesn’t know what to tell him.  He starts walking.

“Tom,” the Captain calls after him, and he stops, “This is the way.”

Tom immediately begins walking the way that the Captain points.

Along the way, he encounters many people who are on the journey themselves.  What happens on their trek is not as important as what they get from the process.  Their reasons are as unique as their stories.  Some need to find improvement, some need redemption, some need to cure writer’s block.

The best thing about The Way, is not necessarily the tale of Tom Avery.  There are some excellent subplots, including the story of Sarah (Unger), who has committed, she understands in retrospect, a grave sin.  She is lost now, and looking for redemption and forgiveness.  It is nice to see an expression of conscience on film.  Too often in media these days heinous acts are dismissed as someone’s right of expression.   Acknowledgement of the personal effect of this disconnect with the human soul is refreshing, as is the demonstration that she is not a pariah, not defined eternally by her past and in no way beyond saving.

The most dramatic point, and the movie’s best scene,  occurs between Sarah and Tom.  A momentary misunderstanding evokes a visceral defensive response, and the reaction to the response is among the more effective things Sheen has ever done on film: he looks beyond it.  There are explanations to come, as everyone is aware, but, for the moment, Avery, as played by Sheen, knows enough about life to look beyond the embarrassment and shock and move forward.  Ever forward.

Avery is a lapsed Catholic, who, while not against the teachings of Christ and his disciples, moved into his later years accepting loss as it made sense.  The loss of his son, who decided to throw responsiblity out the window and just live, did not make sense to him.

“You don’t choose a life, Dad,” Daniel told him before his fateful trip, “You live one.”

He takes this thought with him at the start of his journey, not entirely sure what it means.  By journey’s end, he has a different understanding of the words.  He is much stronger, too.

Estavez has made a wonderful movie here.  Bringing a part of the world that is familiar to him (his grandparents were from Galica, Spain) and his family to life, he has helped to expand upon our own existence.  He describes the movie as “pro-people, pro-life, not anti-anything,” and in this effort, he has succeeded in exemplifying the glory of just living.

There are some Christian undertones to The Way, but it is accessible to more than just the converted.  Everyone has what they take with them while on their walk to the final resting place of St. James.  When they get there, everyone reacts differently.  While I am wont to find more of the message that God would intend for me, and my message would be a Catholic one, it is easy to understand the wisdom of  Estavez not to limit our options.

If you want to experience something outside of your life on this Easter weekend, and, perhaps find a meditation on what the sacrifice of Christ can mean to your life, The Way is a good place to start.  If you want to see confident storytelling, assured direction and wonderful acting, The Way can be recommended for that as well.

Emily’s review: 

What did you like best about the movie, Emily?

I really liked that the father did something very brave for his son.

What do you mean brave?

Walking the Way of St. James.

What makes him brave for making that walk?

He is not a young man, and some people (including his son) didn’t survive.

What was your least favorite part about the film?

I didn’t like it when he got drunk.

Do people do things they regret when they get drunk?

Yeah, and they say stuff that they are not supposed to.

Would you like to make that walk with me one day, Emily?

Maybe we could walk half way and then stop and play soccer.


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