The Way (Multiple Reviews)

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John H. Foote (***)

The Way screened last year at TIFF and I had the chance then to see the film and interview Martin Sheen and his son, actor-director Emilio Estevez. My admiration for the film was solid, particularly for Sheen’s performance, having always admired his work as an actor, so I was pleased when the film finally is getting a release. This film could see Sheen get a decent push for an Oscar nomination as Best Actor. The film is certainly stronger than Estevez’ previous work Bobby (2006) which was a sentimental study of how the assassination of Robert Kennedy impacted a group of people in the hotel that very night. Bobby (2006) turned into a pale imitation of an Altman film with characters in and out of one another’s life, all connected by the single event of the killing of Kennedy, which seemed to steal a nation’s sense of hope. More than anything else, Estevez achieved much in capturing the great sense of hope Kennedy brought for the future, and how it was snuffed out by a bullet on a night in 1968. True, far too many characters overwhelmed the film and perhaps the director, but he cannot be denied as a talent behind the camera. With just a single character to focus on this time in The Way, the weight of the film firmly on Sheen’s shoulders, Estevez seems liberated as a director, displaying much more confidence than ever before behind the camera.

The film opens in California, where a well-off optometrist, Tom (Sheen) is enjoying the life he has carved out for himself seeing patients and playing golf.  His only concern is his forty year-old son Daniel (Estevez) who has really not figured out what he wants to do with his life. Telling his father, “You don’t choose a life Dad. You live one,” his father struggles to figure his son out, wondering when he will start his life and stop travelling. When Tom receives word that Daniel has been killed a single stop into his pilgrimage along the historic path to the Cathedral de Santiago, the stunned man flies to France to identify the body and bring his boy home.

Humbled and grief-stricken by his boy’s death, trying to discover what his son knew about life that he had not yet discovered, he decides to finish the walk for his son, perhaps in the hopes he will be enlightened along the way or come to understand his son in some small manner. The 400-kilometer walk is meant to bring peace to those making the journey, to bring something into their lives that is lacking, to cleanse their troubled souls. Though initially skeptical about any such thing happening to him, Tom is surprised by the happenings along the way, slowly opening up to the people he encounters, slowly allowing his guard to slip down and let people know his story. During one drunken escapade, he verbally attacks the people with him, his prejudices coming out, his anger and shame at the death of his son exposed for the first time like a raw nerve. Without meaning to do so, Tom lets his companions know the person he is really angry with is himself. Tom is in pain, the worst kind to be in because one carries it around like a weight, and he is the last person to understand it. Though he does not take in the natural beauty of the scenes around him, so focused is he on his journey, he is on a different plane than the others, seeking a different sort of experience than his companions. With him on the journey are the ashes of his dead son, sprinkled along the way whenever he saw something worthy of the act, allowing in some small way his son to have made the walk. Slowly, painfully, he comes to realize that his son has been with him all along, in flashbacks where we see their odd relationship, often contentious, though they begin to heal (too late for Daniel) along the way. Tom comes to realize something about his son: he chose to live his life rather than go through the motions. For the first time in Tom’s life he begins to feel alive.

The brilliant Martin Sheen makes the journey worthwhile.

Martin Sheen has always been one of America’s finest actors, and among the most underrated. His performance in Badlands (1974) was remarkable, and his work in Apocalypse Now (1979) was deserving of an Academy Award nomination that never came. Through the seventies before Coppola cast him in that Vietnam epic, he was active in some powerful television films such as Sweet Hostage (1975) and The Execution of Private Slovik (1974). In recent years he was best known to audiences as President Jed Bartlett on the hugely successful television dramatic series The West Wing, and often seemed more Presidential than George W. Bush. There is decency in Sheen that comes across on screen, and is in every frame of this performance. While he is a decent man, he is not necessarily an easy man to like, having shut his son out of his life because the boy chose a different path. Only when his son dies does he make the effort to begin to understand Daniel, and in doing so connects to his son for the first time. A gentle, subtle performance there are no grand emotional moments, just a quietly breathtaking piece of acting exploring a father in pain struggling to find peace with himself and his grief and shame. It is the best work on screen from Sheen since he portrayed Willard in Apocalypse Now (1979) so long ago.

Estevez has grown as an artist over the years breaking free of the Brat Pack long ago, and shaking loose the demons that obviously attached themselves to his brother Charlie. He lives next door to his father and they see one another often, working together whenever they can. This was something of a dream project for them, though Estevez worried about his seventy year-old father humping it along that trail. He told me that the younger members of the cast and crew had a hell of a time keeping up to the older Sheen, so vital and strong is he in his elder years. Estevez focuses the film on his father’s performance, knowing that is the great strength of the film. Sure there are supporting performances from Yorick van Wageningen as the lusty Dutchman encountered on the road, and the emotionally damaged Canadian woman portrayed by Deborah Kara Unger and Estevez himself, seen in flashback as Daniel does strong work, but make no mistake this is Sheen’s film. I wondered how much of the real father-son relationship was part of the film, and both men smiled stating each drew from real life at certain moments, but that their relationship was just fine.

The film will not be for everyone as it moves slowly, the action internalized carried by the emotional range of Sheen, which does not translate to a great deal of action on film.  However the brilliance of the lead actor makes it worth the trip and Sheen will haunt you long after the film has ended. His grief is seen in his eyes throughout the film, and his desperation to find the peace his son had, torments him until the very end of his journey…

Joey Magidson (***)

Emilio Estevez’s new film ‘The Way’ plays more or less like a old man’s version of ‘Into the Wild’, but don’t hold that against it, as it’s also very much its own thing.  This is a very solid drama about a father honoring his son.  In reality, Estevez is honoring his father here as well, with Martin Sheen starring in the flick and doing a wonderful job.  The film is far from perfect, as it’s an almost 2 hour movie that would work far better as about a 90 minute one, and many of the points made by the script have been made in better films before.  Still, it’s a gorgeous looking movie and Sheen’s work is outstanding and stays with you.  That alone would almost be enough to recommend it, but when you factor in some enjoyable banter between him and his co-stars, along with a better than I expected soundtrack, the end result is a rather good experience.  It may not be an Oscar juggernaut this year, or as “important” as ‘Bobby’ was (and I slightly prefer that movie still), but it’s not far behind it.  I think this is a little flick with an awful lot to like about it.

Tom Avery (Sheen) is an eye doctor in California leading a relatively average life.  He’s got a son named Daniel (Estevez) that he’s estranged from, as Daniel has made a life of traveling the globe.  One day on the golf course, Tom is informed that Daniel has died in France while beginning a famous walk known as The Camino de Santiago, which is also called The Way of Saint James.  Tom flies there to collect his son’s body, but while speaking to a Police Captain (Tcheky Karyo), he impulsively decides to cremate Daniel and walk The Camino himself, spreading the remains all along from France to the end of the trek in Spain.  This pilgrimage is a journey many take for all different reasons, as Tom finds out.  Initially intending to walk this on his own quietly, he first meets up with Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), a gregarious Dutchman who all but decides he must be Tom’s friend.  Next, he makes contact with an angry Canadian woman named Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), and finally an Irish author with writer’s block named Jack (James Nesbitt).  The quartet eventually come to walk The Camino together, and each will learn much about the other.  All the while, Tom keeps seeing visions of his son, and as he begins to reach the end of the journey, he’ll grow to understand Daniel more than he ever could before while also learning to embrace life himself.  By the end, Tom and Daniel will be more alike than either of them would ever have imagined.

In a weaker year, Martin Sheen would definitely be in the Best Actor hunt for this compelling portrait of a grieving father on a mission.  Sheen holds your interest the whole way through.  Those who loved his work as President Bartlett on ‘The West Wing’ will notice some similarities here, and that means you can expect very fine work.  His chemistry with each of his fellow travelers is excellent, and his few scenes with his son speak to a lot that is left unsaid.  Sheen is the absolute highlight, but the other performers more than hold there own.  The group of Yorick van Wageningen, Deborah Kara Unger, and James Nesbitt all do fine jobs on their own, but they shine when working off of each other, even more so when bouncing off of Sheen.  Writer/director Emilio Estevez has the small role of Daniel, but he makes it work.  They each leave their mark, but Sheen is where the true hear lies.  Estevez was clearly determined to do justice to his father’s talents, and he surely succeeded here.

As a director, Emilio Estevez is getting better and better.  The visuals here are among the most stunning of the year, and it’s clear that shooting on location was important for him.  Cinematographer Juan Miguel Azpiroz has shot a lovely looking movie for Estevez.  His screenplay isn’t incredibly original, but it hits all of the marks that it needs in order to be effective.  If I had one complaint about his work, it’s that he could have cut the running length a bit.  Around the 80 minute mark, you’re getting ready for things to wrap up, but there’s over a half hour still to go.  Still, there are some excellent scenes (Tom’s conversations with a priest walking The Camino and his encounter with a gypsy are highlights) and the film never gets too dark.  You leave the theater smiling.

‘The Way’ isn’t quite an Oscar player, but I could see certain voters taking a shining to Martin Sheen’s performance.  Don’t let that take anything away from the film itself though, as it’s a goof flick that deserves to be seen.  It’s worth your time to go looking for this movie, as it’s more than enjoyable enough to recommend to you.  I expect you’ll like it just as much as I did!

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