In some regards, The Way falls in line with a genre of American films such as Eat Pray Love and About Schmidt, about suddenly rudderless midlife characters who hit the road in various modes of pilgrimage. In this case, Martin Sheen plays a sixty-something ophthalmologist from Ventura (yes, that Ventura), suddenly forced into self-reflection and a month-long trek on the Catholic pilgrimage trail in Spain known as Camino de Santiago.” Another incidental commonality between these films is the spur to travel to the sights where our restless protagonists visit. No doubt, the interest and awareness of this bucolic pilgrims’ ritual will spike because of The Way’s enlightened scenery and scenario.
Whereas Eat Pray Love felt too slick for its own good, as if funded by Travelocity, The Way is a humbler and somehow more honest sojourn saga. What transpires is a humble “small film” about an odd quartet of seekers on separate missions, from different cultural corners (think The Wizard of Oz). Sheen’s headstrong/silent-type character contrasts with, and is eventually loosened up by, his proximity to a gluttonous and good-hearted Dutchman, a rootless Canadian woman (Deborah Kara Unger) ostensibly hoping to quit smoking on the road to finding herself, and the blocked writer “Jack from Ireland” (James Nesbitt).
Sheen’s son Emilio Estevez (the good apple of the clan) has done a fine, even-handed job as writer/director, and appears as a key figure in the story, if fleetingly and apparition-like. Spiritual aspects of the story are kept on a mostly subliminal level, making for a luminous piece of filmmaking that dares to take on the subject of internal searching, while keeping just enough entertaining wiles at the surface — including songs from James Taylor, The Shins, and others — to keep us tuned in and potential art-house circumspection at bay.
Sheen himself does solid work, if short of transcendent, and Unger, the aloofly powerful and seductive force in David Cronenberg’s Crash, makes a too-rare appearance on the big screen, with her salty wits intact.
Along the road, as the disparate characters interact with both requisite camaraderie and friction, some sentimentality bubbles up. But in the end, The Way follows a winning cinematic path, fulfilling its modest intentions as a moving portrayal of inner and outer forces, in a beautiful place I plan to visit one day.