I remember watching television one Sunday in the late 60’s when I came across Martin Sheen in an episode of The Catholic Hour, a religious program that dramatized various crises that would be neatly resolved within the hour by a renewal of faith. He played the troubled young man in several episodes, and I remember even then thinking he was better than his material. “That young man will go far,” I remember saying, my pre-pubescent voice cracking a bit. OK, maybe I wasn’t quite so insightful, but I remember being impressed.
And yet, though I’ve always respected his work, I never grew into a full-blown fan. I think this is because the archetypal Sheen character is a man who has erected a shell around himself to keep others from reaching the real man, and Sheen plays deeply within that shell, only giving glimmerings of the hidden man and the occasional sudden burst. That’s what we see in the famous breakdown scene in Apocalypse Now. And he has another strong breakdown scene in The Way, a small and appealing movie that plays like a passion project Emilio Estevez has made for his father.
Normally I don’t respond well to the good (but often badly executed) intentions of movies inspired by spirituality. Their resolutions depend too heavily on revelation, the deus ex machina of our time. As the closing credits roll, I murmur, “Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so.”
Which is to say I’m not the best audience for a movie like The Way. But the movie itself is a revelation, a spiritual movie with its feet firmly planted on the ground, a spiritual movie that never gets too sappy or otherworldly. There are problems, sure. It’s maybe twenty minutes too long. And the arc of the main character’s transformation is telegraphed so clearly from the beginning that you feel you’re zeroing in on it with Google Earth. But it still satisfies. There are small pleasures throughout—in the locations, the dialogue, the performances.
Sheen plays Tom, a father who is called to France when he learns that his somewhat estranged son has died at the start of “El camino de Santiago,” the pilgrimage from France to Spain. At first his intention is to identify the body and bring it home for burial. But then he decides to complete the pilgrimage his son began. Along the way, he meets various antic types in search of enlightenment, each of whom has a full knapsack of secrets and quirky behavior.
James Nesbitt plays Jack, who hides behind a veneer of false jollity. Yorick van Wageningen plays Joost, a Dutchman who insulates himself from unpleasant truths by hiding behind his excess weight. Deborah Kara Unger, the cast standout, plays Sarah, a road-weary woman who carries her emotional scars like a shield. She’s been slapped around by life so much that she sees every encounter as the prelude to an assault.
Sheen’s Tom takes on his son’s pilgrimage with a grim determination that hides his grief—grief over his loss, grief over the bond he never achieved with his son. He’s a man who never met an emotion he didn’t stamp out like a cigarette butt. Over the course of the pilgrimage he slowly thaws, but never so completely that we don’t believe the change. At one point, when all is quite literally lost, the shell falls away and we see the hidden grief and the self-pitying rage of real life. It’s the best acting Sheen has done in years.
What you expect of a movie like The Way is that each character will have a life-changing revelation by the time he or she reaches the destination. But this little movie is smarter than that. What you get is more realistic—not full-blown revelation but a glimpse of it. The characters may not be all that changed, and they’re pain has not gone away, but they’re better off than they realize, better for the bonds they’ve made and better for having confronted certain truths about the world and themselves.