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The Way

 

There is a quiet tug-of-war at the heart of The Way, a movie written and directed by Emilio Estevez and starring his father Martin Sheen.

 

This tepid, little film knows it is lying, but it doesn’t want to give up its grand presumptions and instead banishes its true meaning to the hinterlands, where it lives like a beggar. It’s a ghost in the margins of the film, a reminder that not only is the journey bogus, but the emotional and spiritual impulses that leads to it is also empty and artificial.

 

The only interesting thing about The Way is how it excommunicates its better instincts.

 

Tom (Martin Sheen) is an optometrist living an ordered, structured life in a small, upscale California town. He’s a man of modest temperament, happy on the golf course or chit chatting with his patients. The only chaos is his life is his son Daniel (Estevez), a middle-aged man who has decided to travel abroad. D

 

Daniel is an idealistic vagabond who seems to thrive on the idea of challenge. His father’s life – staid, dull, manicured -- repels him. When Tom reminds his son that his life might seem dull to him, but it is the one he has chosen, Daniel chides him by saying that we do not choose life, we live it.

 

Tom’s snow-globe of a life is shattered when he receives a call that his Daniel has died while hiking the Camino de Santiago, an ancient trail pilgrims have made throughout the ages. Daniel died of exposure on the first day of his journey. Tom flies to Spain to receive the remains, but decides instead to continue his son’s journey.

 

Walking ahead of his son along the trail, Tom attracts a small group of fellow travelers: a Dutch man making the journey to lose weight, a self-destructive Canadian who appears to be trying to shed guilt over an abortion, and an Irish writer who has lost his muse. If this sounds like a re-envisioning of the Wizard of Oz, you’re on the right track, although the man behind the curtain here is God.

 

The Way is basically a movie about salvation, but there’s not much to save here. The characters feel wooden and inauthentic, spiritual questions are never probed in any serious way, and at its very core The Way is lost. In searching for a religious answer to what is essentially a spiritual problem, Estevez forgets the central character of the film: Tom’s missing son.

 

Daniel’s ideals are purer than Tom’s, but the father cannot know the son simply by following his example. Instead of choosing the road less traveled, Tom decides to turn the trip into a sight-seeing tour of Spain. Rather than turning his light inward to examine its inner dimensions, he becomes the De facto leader of a small group of narcissists who could be on a self-help retreat.

 

The movie is aware that he falls short of his son’s life, but it doesn’t seem to care. Daniel appears as a ghost throughout the film, off the beaten trail, in the garbs of a priest, always as a sort of reprimand to Tom that he is, in fact, not on the truth path at all. Daniel’s austerity is too much of a sacrifice to Tom. He wants to have the religious experience and the modern conveniences that remove actual risk from the journey.

 

Complaining early on, when Daniel leaves a message on his machine, but not a return number, Tom says: “Everyone on the planet has a mobile phone except my son.” Is it so hard to imagine a spiritual journey without your e-mail? Is it such a stretch to believe that an arduous pilgrimage should be difficult?

 

And yet life on the road is full of conveniences. People carry around bedrolls, tents and sleeping bags, but almost always stay in hotels and hostels, drinking wine by the bottles, eating gourmet cheeses and truffles. Daniel made this same trip to lose himself and rediscover God in the world; for Tom religion is just ceremony and the majesty of the road is only an excuse to walk fast.

 

In a rare moment of revelation, one of the merry band asks Tom, “What are you doing here … Except taking a long walk?” This is essentially my question, as well. There are certainly gestures that this film wants to be about big issues, but it feels false, contrived, even corny at times.

 

I’ve experienced more heart walking between berms at the mall.

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