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'The Way': Martin Sheen takes spiritual journey in movie directed by his son

Martin Sheen walks the El Camino de Santiago in "The Way"
Martin Sheen walks the El Camino de Santiago in "The Way"
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Emilio Estevez and his dad, Martin Sheen, decided to make a movie to celebrate their love of the El Camino de Santiago trail, which traces a 780km Medieval Christian pilgrimage from France to Northwest Spain, which every summer is crowded with 100,000’s of walkers from all over the world. The two have family history with the trail and the movie is dedicated to Estevez’s grandfather, so evidently it means a lot to the two of them. But whatever significance the trail has to them, their excitement for it doesn’t come across in this movie.

Sheen plays an intelligent, practical man who is somewhat estranged to his romantic son (Estevez) who ditched a doctorate in anthropology to travel the world. He’s killed in a freak storm on the first day of the El Camino and Sheen travels to France to retrieve the body. He realizes he didn’t understand his son and decides to walk the trail in his place in the hopes of finding some kind of solace.

The first act is quite good. It’s a sad story about a father, now completely alone in the world who has to deal with the loss of his final family member, his son, who he wasn’t close to. Estevez doesn’t really do anything extraordinary with this material. He just has a subtle way of evoking pathos in these scenes.

The rest is not so well-handled. It’s a road (or trail) movie that’s dull and repetitive. For a movie about walking a trail with spiritual significance, there are no real nature shots except at the very end or any attempt to capture the sublime-ness of the trail. There are lots of walking shots of Sheen and the ragtag group that snowballs with him from France to Spain. Estevez only has so many of these shots up his sleeve and as a consequence, many of these scenes blend into one another.

He could take some lessons from “The Way Back,” a movie released the same year about escaped prisoners of communism, making an even longer walk from Siberia to India. The director, Peter Weir, never seems to run out of ways to show people walking, even at a runtime of two hours and thirteen minutes.

All the characters seem to be walking the El Camino for the wrong reasons, but at the end are filled with the spirit of the trail. None of the main characters are very religious. Sheen describes himself as a lapsed Catholic. A pompous Irish writer (James Nesbitt) says he can’t even enter a church because of how offended he is of Ireland’s bloody religious history. The only woman of the group (Deborah Kara Unger) comes all the way from Canada to walk the trail as some sort of grand gesture to quit smoking.

But when the group reaches the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, the destination of the pilgrimage, they are overcome with the majesty of the great church. This is especially true of the writer, who despite his contempt for the Church has a religious experience. This is supposed to be one of the movie’s most powerful scenes but I found it to be pretentious. This is the fantasy of religious people: that deep down inside, even a secular person who has abandoned the Church is secretly religious, even if it’s a secret to himself. Some religious people, like Estevez maybe, believe this is true because they are religious and everyone else, in their hearts, must be like them.

Except for the first act, Estevez’s passion for this material really doesn’t shine through. The movie is intrinsically a little static because it’s a movie about people walking a trail on predictable terrain. And Estevez doesn’t move the material beyond basics or find its soul. There is some potential here for an interesting movie, but the material is just not handled well.

*1/2 (out of 4)

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David Jackson can be reached at

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