For a self-proclaimed spiritual film, Emilio Estevez’s The Way proves to be, well, not so spiritual. The slow, hackneyed drama, instead, turns out to be one giant cliché, void of any insights into human experience but full of political correctness.
Such banality becomes apparent early on when the protagonist, Tom (a grumpy old doctor played by a middling Martin Sheen), receives news that his son, Daniel, (Estevez), has died on a pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Reminiscing about his son, Tom recalls a conversation in which Daniel tells him, “You don’t choose life. You live it.”
Trite, unperceptive ideas like this fill the rest of the story, which follows Tom as he goes to Spain to gather his son’s remains but, while there, feels compelled to finish the journey that Daniel started.
This journey, an obvious metaphor for life itself, makes for a hopeful premise, with room for both profound spiritual implications and grandiose visuals, but Estevez captures neither. In fact, the film may as well have been shot in, say, Oklahoma, given all the bland, underwhelming scenery. Unfortunately, the uneven soundtrack is no better. It moves from an overly sappy score, which builds pretentiously in every emotional scene, to an unexciting mishmash of adult radio fare, including Alanis Morissette and David Gray.
On the pilgrimage, Tom does connect with some interesting characters, including a charismatic writer (James Nesbitt) and gluttonous Dutchman (Yorick van Wageningen), and their bond makes for some entertaining moments. It also represents the only profound concept of the film—the need for and value of community.
But like Tom himself, these individuals never evolve. They, representing all walks of life, mostly exist to help get across the film’s liberal message, which goes to great lengths to make sure that no person or religion gets left behind. While this approach may be culturally proper, it keeps The Way from saying much of anything about anything.
As Tom moves forward in his pilgrimage and the story goes on and on as he moves from place to place, we expect some introspection, but alas, we get none. Spirituality is almost entirely absent.
That’s not to say that Estevez doesn’t try. Along the way, Tom sees visions of Daniel—scenes that end up feeling creepy—and receives a crucifix necklace from a priest. He also meets a plethora of characters who are all on the pilgrimage for a different reason.
All this never gets anywhere, though. The film simply doesn’t reach the heart of Tom or of human experience. Despite good, personal intentions, Estevez ultimately settles for shallow political correctness. By the overly sentimental finale, the film has only told us the same old tired ideas: that “life is a journey” and “all roads lead to god.”
For a more personal, more effective, far superior film about death, family and spirituality that actually makes use of its international setting, see Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited.