Review: THE WAY - Admirable & Low-Key Effort From Father & Son

rating: 3

Many films have coasted on success simply by bringing a little scrap of truth to the screen. In The Way, the bond of a father and son is brought to compelling light thanks to the very real father-son bond between director and co-star Emilio Estevez and his father, Martin Sheen. Though too long and rather padded, this meditative drama derives grand power from the very real connection between its stars, and also that between player and director. Keenly, Estevez - who sees himself grow considerably as a director here - wastes no time with a laboured set-up, instead diving right into the heart of this tragic story of loss. Tom (Sheen) is an American doctor who receives a call that his estranged son, Daniel (Estevez) has been killed in a storm while walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. After retrieving Daniel's body, he decides to walk the route himself, and along the way comes across three fellow pilgrims, Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), Jack (James Nesbitt) and Joost (Yorick van Wageningen) who are also looking for answers in their lives. What unequivocally makes The Way work is the monumental lead performance by Martin Sheen, who is brilliant from frame one, while the fleetingly-appearing Estevez isn't too far behind either, in what is arguably a career high for them both. Sheen, leering over the morgue slab on which his son rests, conveys the punishing heartbreak and lingering regret of time snatched away and things left unsaid, the script requiring of him to tune into a certain grim reality which he does with aching conviction. Through economically employed flashbacks, the emotional stakes are raised considerably, and never once do they feel desperately after-the-fact in a desperate bid for resonance. Estevez fares well in spreading his directorial wings somewhat after the more conventional Bobby, adopting a sedate arthouse aesthetic which occasionally becomes too plodding, though mostly feels true and passionate, while never maudlin and punctuated with surprising bouts of humour. The European flavour is unmistakable; it has more than an air of Bergman, and not just in setting. While the Camino is a very clear life metaphor - that people stick together, separate and lose their way - it could be clumsily oversold in the wrong hands, though thankfully not in these, such that James Nesbitt's barmy poet character even draws attention to it at one point. With the contrived circumstances in which the hiking party meets up, and the visions of his son that Tom encounters, there's plenty of room to go overboard, but Estevez has a surprisingly light touch, making the drama feel real and unforced, and those excessively convenient moments easy to forgive. The second half definitely feels less concise, though, with artificial obstacles being introduced, and the middle act especially turns into a bit of a slog, yet the wait is worth it to see Sheen at his most vital and passionate in years; an alcohol-fuelled conflict mid-film gives Sheen a chance to show off his acting chops, no matter that the drama feels slightly manufactured. There are several caperish, even silly moments which could have slimmed the runtime way down with their elision. It's easy to forgive, though, when Estevez, a relatively inexperienced director, gets right what so many similar dramas don't; in one of the rare examples where it works, a pop montage here strikes an unexpected emotional note while livening things up after a considerable dramatic trough. From here the film leaps off to become a broader study of what the way means to different people; to atone, to escape, to learn, and it is admittedly alluring enough that you might even want to don some hiking boots yourself. The bond between the principal characters works thanks to the relaxed chemistry between the cast, making the more superfluously wordy sections still worth it, and the Camino is beautifully shot by Estevez, capturing the baroque beauty of both the various homes and stop-inns the gang come across, as well as the literally awesome quality of sheer nature. It arrives at a strong, powerful ending whether you're religious or not; we feel much has been understood if not in the most obvious of ways. Those appreciative of minimalism over grand emotional gestures will find the end very moving, and like the Camino itself, The Way is designed more as a stroll than a sprint. The Way is out now in the U.K.
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Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at] gmail.com.