The Way Dir. Emilio Estevez

[Elixir Films; 2011]

Styles: uplifting road movies
Others: About Schmidt, The Straight Story, The Wizard of Oz

Martin Sheen plays Thomas Avery, an old eye doctor with a caustic take on life who turns downright grumpy when his son dies while on a spiritual journey through Spain. Avery’s voyage overseas to bring home his son’s body quickly morphs into a steely resolve to finish the boy’s journey, a pilgrimage through the Spanish countryside along a trail dubbed El Camino de Santiago by the people who walk it. The walk involves a lot of scenery, a lot of stops at quaint Spanish towns, and, for Avery, a steadily growing entourage of colorful sidekicks. His entourage is made up of a tubby Dutchman named Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), walking to lose weight so his wife will sleep with him again; an icy Canadian named Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger) trying to give up cigarettes; and a clownish Irishman named Jack (James Hesbitt), in it to collect stories for a travelogue book on the Camino. Such an anodyne crew of folks uniquely suited to solve one another’s issues hasn’t been formed since Dorothy landed on the Yellow Brick Road.

But goddamned if The Way wasn’t successful in chipping away at the very outer wisp of my disdain for this kind of film, the journey of personal (re)discovery through cliché and ever-so-safe adventure. Broad and mushy in the style of movies that really want to inspire people, The Way is nevertheless a movie about a son and father made by a son and a father (writer/director Emilio Estevez, Sheen’s actual son, plays the doomed hiker). And when a son and a father make a movie about a son and a father, they will almost invariably end up making an honest movie about a son and a father, even if the honesty amounts to little more than, This is honestly what it looks like when two glib Hollywood veterans crank on their cornpone generators. The Way is merciless cornpone, but Sheen and Estevez are veterans — their actual relationship and a few old tricks of the trade can’t help seeping through. Which explains why The Way has every right to be terrible and winds up considerably less than.

Estevez, for one, is a reliably zippy storyteller. He keeps the episodes coming, keeps the action intelligible, and he doesn’t slog through scenes. Every character is a study in what Americans think of when they think of European characters in European movies, so there isn’t a lot of emotional depth. But there is a lot of rhythm to the way this movie was cut, which, coupled with the aged confidence of Sheen, carries the story. It’s as if Estevez either innately understands how to entertain after 25 years in acting or simply knows enough to hire a talented editor. Also, the photography is never hard to look at. Estevez isn’t Malick or Cuaron, and he doesn’t have a cinematographer like Emmanuel Lubezki, but neither is he afraid to let Spain remain dark or flat or even uninteresting, which is a nice way of saying he doesn’t resort to photographic tricks — or shots of waving grain — to try to make his story stick. In particular, when Sheen and company wind up at a gypsy party in an alley at midnight, replete with trashcan fires and hanging lanterns, the scene is downright grimy for a movie with this much sap. The look is an anomaly when put against the rest of the film, at least up until the wonderful photography in a cathedral near the end, but it underscores the idea that if Estevez were smart enough to bring in a ringer to write his movies, the way he brings in ringers to shoot and edit them, he could be a strikingly good director.

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