Fittingly, The Way has the feeling of a joint tribute; an acclamation from son to father and back again.
Watching Martin Sheen in the early scenes of The Way, it’s difficult not to recall the opening of that other gentle journeyman movie, Apocalypse Now. "Saigon... shit. I’m still only in Saigon," Sheen’s delirious Willard grunted in 1979, to a backdrop of chopper blades and Jim Morrison, his fist bloodied by a shattered mirror.
It’s fair to say Sheen has left Saigon behind. Directed by and co-starring his son, Emilio Estevez, The Way offers a change in mood. Here, he plays Tom Avery, a kindly American doctor who chides an old woman for not wearing her contact lenses before heading out for a spot of relaxation on the golf course.
But this quiet life is interrupted when Avery learns that his estranged, free-spirited son Daniel (Estevez) has died on the Camino de Santiago, a thousand-year-old, 800-kilometre pilgrimage for spiritual chancers and hopers across northern Spain. Avery decides to complete the journey his son began, wheezing his way through the Pyrenees with a paunch poking through his North Face and Daniel’s ashes in his backpack.
The Way is a shamelessly sentimental, perfect curve of a movie – audacious enough, even, to include a Coldplay score. But what the film lacks in intrigue or edge it atones for with subtle gradations of emotion from its leading man.
An early scene sees Sheen speeding through France in the throes of grief as he recalls the last conversation he shared with his son. "This is the life I chose," he says of his easy, closeted existence. "You don’t choose a life, dad, you live one," Daniel retorts.
As Estevez crosscuts between this memory and the present, Sheen reacts as if his son is right there, sat in the carriage with him. It’s a cliché that shouldn’t work, but Sheen owns it, his loss writ large in the wrinkled lines of his face. But as the film matures, Sheen retires from reprising such a private moment of grief, withdrawing into himself with eyes only for the way ahead.
Each of the fellow pilgrims he grudgingly acquires, from the Falstaffian Dutch fool Joost (Yorick van Wageningen) to the elusive, damaged Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger) to a jabbering Irish poet (James Nesbitt), try to pierce this morose shell and gradually Avery allows them to sustain him, in the process discovering the serendipity his son craved.
"Film is an illusion. Fame is ephemeral. Faith and family are what endure," Estevez has said. Fittingly, The Way has the feeling of a joint tribute; an acclamation from son to father and back again. A slightly excessive love-in, you might say, when most would head down to the pub for a pint.
And yet this also feels ephemeral. It’s a film of foothills, not peaks. It’s pseudo-spiritual without ever really saying anything about faith. It’s kind-of meaningful without ever facing up to the harder dynamics of its early scenes. It falls back on false dawns and mini-epiphanies when confronted with complexity. But it’s saved by an actor of iconic proportions; a man uniquely capable of sharing the journey ahead.
Martin Sheen growing old gracefully.
Estevez is still to come of age.
Perhaps his next film should be about a certain Carlos Estevez.