Emilio Estevez’s films (first Bobby and now The Way) read to me as cinematic fortune cookies: dubious, unenlightening and, most of all, disposable. In Bobby, a glorious train wreck featuring an ensemble of B-list stars, Estevez made an occasion out of trivializing one of the most monumental events of the civil rights movement. Yet, glorious it still was, making the audience wonder whether it was finally going to stop trying to top its own banality.
To give Estevez his credit, The Way is the total opposite of Bobby, skipping all of the glitz and glam. But what still remains is Estevez’s inability to breathe any humanity into his characters. If Bobby was history for dummies, then The Way is philosophy for morons.
If nothing else, Estevez excels at delivering very moving third acts, which makes me wonder if he’s solely attracted to material with satisfying ends. The first two acts of The Way drag on as we follow Tom (Martin Sheen) on a pilgrimage called El Camino de Santiago. Tom flies to France after hearing that his son Daniel (Estevez sporting a Christ-like beard) died on the pilgrimage and decides to run the trek while scattering Daniel’s ashes along the way. Throughout his pilgrimage, Tom befriends Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), a fool hearty fat Dutchmen, Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), an emotionally guarded Canadian, and Jack (James Nesbitt), an egocentric Irish travel novelist.
It’s never made clear why the band of misfits stick together and become friends; these characters go out of their way to be cruel to each other, a plot device used in such a nonsensical manner — negative in one scene, heartwarming the next — that it reduces their character arcs to pure kitsch. Jack is repulsive 80 per cent of the time, even to the extent where he unabashedly exploits Tom’s pain. Jack doesn’t bat an eye and, more regretfully, neither does the film. Estevez seems to be invested so deeply in the material that he’s oblivious of the fact that these are terrible people. Sarah is the most mishandled character in the film, which is interesting, as she becomes the film’s enigmatic puzzle piece. It’s interesting until you realize that the character’s much needed subtext is not there, even more maddening because Kara Unger is a real presence in the film.
The Way is a combination of staged set pieces, exuding a sense of faux-insightfulness that treads to the level of full-blown pretentiousness. Watching a group of people banter about philosophical issues isn’t as entertaining when you realize they’re talking out of their asses.
Yet I do understand Estevez’s motives behind the film. I appreciate the fact that he’s paying tribute to his grandfather Francisco Estevez, and I love the notion that he’s giving Martin Sheen, his father, an opportunity to showcase his talents. But the film wastes that opportunity and Estevez brings nothing new to the table. His filmmaking techniques are clunky, always referring to clumsy flashbacks and repetitious walking montages set to distracting pop songs.
The movie could have been an instant success if Estevez had invested a style that actually evokes the film’s philosophical message. It’s only as the film comes to a close that we realize its heart lies in Joost, whose reasons for pilgrimage are subtly explained in devastating fashion. It’s a shame the film doesn’t show any interest in the character beforehand.