The Way Movie Review

Director/screenwriter: Emilio Estevez
Featuring: Martin Sheen, Yorick van Wageningen, James Nesbitt, Deborah Kara Unger, Emilio Estevez
Review: rolanstein

There’s a new demographic in town (well, outta town, actually): the middle-aged backpacker.

The boomer backpacker phenomenon seems to have erupted out of nowhere, almost overnight. When my partner and I travelled through Lombok in our forties – 15 years ago now – we came across few other backpackers of our vintage. Very few. Not too many about in Malaysia only 5 years ago, either. But when we went to Vietnam last year, there were greys lumping backpacks everywhere! A few weeks ago we encountered more of the same in Thailand.

Hollywood tapped into the demographic with Eat Pray Love (and, it might be argued, added to its momentum – Julia Roberts has a lot to answer for, going by reports on the escalation in gentrification of Ubud since the release of the movie).

The cynics in our midst – and lawd forbid that I be tarred with that bitter brush – might suggest that this latest old fart backpacker movie, The Way, is driven primarily by a boomer-targeted marketing strategy. Eat Pray Love was a big winner at the box office. You can bet Hollywood will be hopping on the boomer-in-mid-life-crisis-does-a-geographical bandwagon until the wheels fall off.

Thing is, The Way is a heart-felt effort from director/screenwriter Emilio Estevez, too earnest to be dismissed as mere bandwagon hopping. Alas, good intentions are not enough to save the movie.

The set-up has promise. Thomas Avery (Martin Sheen) and his 30-something son Daniel (Emilio Estevez) have a bristly relationship arising from their sharply contrasting attitudes to life. The father prioritises career and comfort, the son adventure and challenging himself. Thomas’s stable suburban world is rocked when he receives a phone call from a French gendarme informing him that Daniel has been killed while hiking in the Pyrenees. He flies to France to bring home his son’s ashes, and makes an impulsive decision to complete the trek his son was attempting when killed.

The first sign of trouble ahead, filmically speaking, comes when Thomas meets the gendarme who broke the news of Daniel’s death. The gendarme states vaguely that Daniel perished during a storm while walking the Camino de Santiago, a Catholic pilgrimage route to Galicia, Spain, also known as the Way of St. James (‘The Way’). Incredibly, Thomas seeks no further details on his son’s death, yet listens attentively as the gendarme launches into a detailed rundown on The Way and its history that sounds like an excerpt from a travel guide book. This is the clumsiest and most amateurish instance of exposition I have come across in a movie in years.

It becomes apparent soon after Thomas hauls on his backpack and sets off on his trek that The Way is veritably packed with ‘pilgrims’. Narrative logic pedants like me can’t help but to wonder how poor Daniel managed to die out there as a result of exposure to severe weather with so much human traffic around, and dorms and other accommodation regularly spaced along the trail. Just damned unlucky, it seems (especially since the weather is benign for the rest of the movie!).

By and by, Thomas links up – reluctantly at first – with three other trekkers on personal quests: “Joost from Amsterdam” (as he routinely introduces himself), a chain-smoking Canadian biatch named Sarah, and Jack, an Irish poet with writer’s block.

Joost (Yorick van Wageningen) is the most successful of these characters. His simple aim in walking The Way is to lose weight. He wants to slim down for his brother’s coming wedding, but his primary motivation is that his wife won’t sleep with him unless he loses the flab (maybe he’d be better off losing the wife). He’s an endearing character, full of bon homie, and slightly Falstaffian in his irreverence and excesses. He flings himself on every tasty regional speciality that presents itself, and whips out a joint and offers it round at the slightest opportunity. Well, he’s Dutch, innee! National stereotyping, blatantly, but sorta forgivable if you can bring yourself to be charitable about it…and you can in Joost’s case.

Not so, Jack the Irishman (James Nesbitt – who else?). I have to admit to being heartily sick of this bloke, an Irish everyman whose acting range seems to me very limited. His opening scene here is an embarrassingly overacted and intensely irritating soliloquy that goes on interminably and establishes his character as – guess what – an eccentric, hard-drinkin’ Irish bohemian with a gripe against the Catholic church. Is there any cliché left out of that mix?

Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger) starts off with a bang, identifying her target, Thomas, as “Boomer” and sledging him and his generation off with an unprovoked volley of putdowns and accusations (self-centred, indulgent, quasi-spiritual, youth-coveting, young-chick-seeking blah blah). She’s no spring chicken herself, which rather diminishes the force of her generation-based attack. While her unoriginal critique of the Boomers is not without substance, it seems odd here, tacked on. It’s as if the screenwriter, not the character, has a generational score to settle and is proud of the rave, which he’s bloody well keeping in the script whether it fits or not.

An Amazonian Joni Mitchell with big thrusting tits and spray-on jeans, Sarah’s appearance is slightly distracting, and at odds with her manner and personal history. She’s supposed to be a victim of spousal abuse, but lookin’ at this gal you can imagine her decking any guy who laid a hand on her. Indeed, in a later scene that lacks any credibility, she reflexively socks poor old Thomas in the jaw. This aside, she’s an insubstantial character who runs out of puff after her strong introduction.

The clichés don’t stop with the characters. There is drinking and revelry at night – obligatory and fun on the road, but not so gripping filmed. Eccentric characters along the way, natch (those crazy colourful Continentals!), including one that is cartoonish in his silliness – an innkeeper who conducts a party with himself, switching chairs to take on different roles. OK in Monty Python, way outta place here.

There are panoramic shots of the four backpackers trudging along in single file profiled against the sky – quite a few of them. Wide shots of the four against sweeping rural backdrops. Etc. While the landscape is cinematically irresistible and its inclusion integral to the travel theme of the movie, there is not enough of substance going on in the human world. Too much travelogue, not enough narrative or character development.

The most dramatic scene of the movie is not a fictional construct but an excerpt from the real-life theatre of the Catholic church (now there’s an institution that knows how to work an audience). In the cathedral in Galicia that marks the end of The Way, a battery of clergy hoists a massive and lethally heavy thurible high into the vaults via a series of ropes and pulleys; it swings in massive arcs, swooping over the heads of the pilgrims, plumes of incense describing its dangerous trajectory. Jaw-dropping stuff, and wonderfully filmed.

The ending was always headed for anti-climax, since the characters are not well fleshed out and we don’t care enough about any of them, and coming after the cathedral scene a miserable fizzling out is assured. A last ditch attempt is made to save the characters’ inevitable respective transformations from cliché by denying each the objective they set out in quest of, but this uniform perverseness is too neat and obvious a strategy, and all too late.

Redeeming features? The cinematography is fine throughout. And Martin Sheen is as good as ever, giving his all to his lead role. But the woodpile is built hollow. Far more thought needed to be invested in the script, and perhaps more talent. I’m not sure Estevez has the goods as a writer to do the job solo. I’d be surprised if this turkey lasts long on the big screens before going to Blu-ray and video.

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2 thoughts on “The Way Movie Review”

  1. Ha! I’m so glad you reviewed this one. I had pretty much the same problems with it as you did, beginning with the two basic premises: that an apparent career-student can drop his doctoral studies and find the wherewithal to kit himself out handsomely, fly to Europe and hit the spiritual tourism trail; and that his father, who can’t see the point of all this nonsense, would then shoulder the backpack and take to the Camino himself. But it’s the hero’s journey again, though this time it’s the father undertaking it and healing his relationship with his son, so I suspended disbelief and was prepared to go along with the initial set-up. You know that Tom is going to undergo a transformation and wonder what will happen to enable it.
    I’ve read a couple of books about the Camino so I was familiar with it, but oh dear, you’re right about the clunky exposition. From didactic gendarme to actual reading from guide books! Sheesh.
    Re the characters: yep. Cliches. No more to be said. And that scene with the lunatic innkeeper belonged on the cutting room floor for sure.
    I also hated the sequence about gypsies that clumsily and unconvincingly depicted something about family, community and honour. None of it rang true.
    But it’s a big task to depict spiritual growth without being naff and I thought The Way made a fair fist of it. The scene where the credencial (the Camino “passport”) was validated, and the pilgrims were each asked why they undertook the journey, was treated with some delicacy. And Thomas’s sightings of his son from time to time, marking, as they did, his progress towards understanding his son’s motivations and processing his own grief, were moving and appropriate.
    Where I disagree with you is about the cinematography, which I thought was rubbish: grainy and pedestrian (apologies for unintended pun). I expected more evocations of the glory of the natural world, but I guess you have to have a big enough budget to hang around for the weather to be perfect, or to hire some humongous sun guns. And yes, the theatre of the swinging thurible was amazing, but the awe this inspires is the spirituality of churches and popes, not of poets or of Jesus; I think the reactions of our motley crew of pilgrims expressed this ambivalence.
    The final nail in this well-intentioned film’s coffin for me was the last shot of Tom, now looking way cool, nigh unto Michael Douglas, complete with Arabian keffiyeh around his neck, strolling through a Moroccan souk. It’s as though the object of all this spiritual growth is a commodity that is expressed through a style of dress and a penchant for travel. Pah! I say. Tell that to the Dalai Lama. Oh, wait…

  2. G’day Karen.

    Yes, a few aspects on which we diverge – though more on which we agree.

    I’m not sure about your assertion that spiritual growth is difficult to depict without being naff. Doesn’t every character arc track spiritual growth? I know what you mean, though, of course. It’s a challenge alright, avoiding being naff when spiritual growth is actually identified as spiritual growth. In fact, so difficult in a movie context that I think it’s a folly for any but the most skilled of filmmakers to even attempt it.

    I don’t think this flick came close. The only naffer effort I can recall was Higher Ground (we’ve already disagreed on that one, as I recall…come to think about it, naffness is always a bone of contention twixt us!). That said, agree about the Camino passport part. That was handled OK.

    The popping up of dead Daniel? I thought it was an obvious device, and unnecessary – and very bloody naff!! It didn’t help that Estevez always seemed to have a silly look on his face, as if he was playing peekaboo. So no, not appropriate or moving in my book.

    I suspect we’re not talking about the same thing re cinematography. I also noticed that the natural environment was not shown off to best effect, but should it have been? If it was dull and overcast – and we are talking mountains here – why should the camera crew have sought to present it as bright, sunny and splendid? I reckon the dullness was in keeping with the nature of the lead character’s quest. And the graininess – yes, I did notice that. But is that down to the cinematography (genuine question)? In any case, I agree that that was a flaw, but saw it as some technical problem not attributable to the camera crew, director of photography or whatever. I guess I think of cinematography in terms of scene composition and capturing mood, action etc – which I thought was competently done throughout. And as mentioned in the review, I thought the filming of that thurible scene was a highlight – actually, THE highlight.

    Completely agree about the idealising of the gypsy father. Really irritating PC crap. I meant to bring that up in the review, but forgot.

    And I couldn’t agree more about that ending. Groan.

    Always find your comments thought-provoking, whether I share your views or not. Thanks, as always, for commenting.


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