There are two ways to describe The Way. The first will be familiar to anyone who has discussed Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth films with a non-believer – “they’re all just taking a really long walk, I suppose.” The second is much longer. Whilst it is fair to say that much of the film is spent walking, it is the personal, not just physical, journey which concerns us, and which has inspired many to follow this very particular way.
Martin Sheen heads up the cast as Tom Avery, a middle-of-the-road guy nearing retirement, whose 40 year old son Daniel (Emilio Estevez) dies in a tragic accident whilst walking an historic pilgrim trail in Northern Spain, the Camino de Santiago. He chooses to take his son’s place on the pilgrimage, although he is utterly unprepared for the journey. Along the way he meets three other pilgrims – Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger) and Jack (James Nesbitt) – each with their own reason for walking, and together they reach their destination, physically and personally.
Tom is a man whose familial loss leads to a loss of faith – and Faith. Walking offers him the chance for quiet introspection and leads to situations which allow him to find his new, true self. Each of the four lead characters have a similar path to tread; The Way is concerned with the masks we wear, even when we are not aware of it. All this could be thoroughly depressing, but it is injected with compassion, humour and vitality which transcend a single emotion. The film belongs to Sheen, who brings both refined elegance and raw emotion to his character, moving from quiet insular grief to a wine-red mist rage and finding all the points in between. Yet the Camino itself, the countryside and the road, are characters in their own right here, and almost a match for the unimpeachable and incomparable Sheen.
Instead of Gaudí’s famous church in Barcelona or the sunny beaches of Ibiza, director Emilio Estevez takes the viewer on a journey in Spain’s rural north through late autumn into early winter. Yet, however cool the weather, warmth exudes from the screen; The Way looks and feels gorgeous. Director of photography Juanmi Azpiroz’s tasteful, artful, beautiful shots capture the majesty of the Spanish countryside from the wide expanse of Meseta to the windswept extremities of the mountains. We are on, ironically, the path less travelled in the cinematic and touristic experiences of Spain, and this makes all the difference. Exquisite maps of the pilgrim trail are gently tracked throughout the movie, rooting our characters firmly to the route and conveying a sense of scale which could be too easily lost on film. Like an ant crawling after Indiana Jones, Tom’s 880 kilometre journey by foot, roughly 1,000,000 steps, is traced along a path followed by millions over millennia.
The Way is a story of fathers and sons where the father and son only share three short scenes. Yet the son is firmly felt throughout; both channelled through, and the cause of, the father’s journey. Of course, the father-and-son story is not just that of Tom and Daniel; and for every image of Martin Sheen on screen there is the imagination of Emilio Estevez behind it. Sheen is at his best here, in a role which inspires the greatest empathy due to its unwavering authenticity. A devastating morgue scene is the faultless embodiment of the idea that a parent should not outlive their child, made all the more poignant when you consider that a real-life parent is looking at his actual son on the slab. Even for an actor as accomplished as Sheen, this must have been one of his hardest days of work on a film. Daniel as played by Estevez is seen in glimpses throughout the film, as a fellow pilgrim and figment of his mourning father’s imagination. However, his presence in the story is felt predominantly in the small silver box containing his cremated ashes, carried by his father along the camino Daniel was unable to complete himself.
Tyler Bates has created a masterful sound to follow their tracks, with his score containing strength and vulnerability, melancholy and mystery. Bates employs traditional Spanish twists to form the soundtrack; strings and voices stir emotions and place the score firmly in the Iberian Peninsula. Tracks such as ‘This Must be the Place’, played as Tom realises he has reached the point his son took his fatal misstep, are hauntingly beautiful, with a gentleness and subtlety which emphasise the empathy we feel for Tom, replacing the need for any words which could have instead been spoken.
Not content with having Tom lose Daniel in a tragic accident, The Way shows our father lose his son three more times before they are at peace. In flashbacks we are shown the strained relationship between the pair, as Tom’s disappointment in his son’s life choices forces a wedge between them and their distance is greater the further away Daniel travels. Once Tom’s Camino is underway, inspired by these first two losses, a moment of exhausted absent-mindedness leads to one of the most heart-pounding scenes of the film, as his backpack falls into a rushing river and threatens to take away what physical remains of his son he has left. What the river failed to take is almost stolen away permanently by an opportunistic gypsy boy in one of the few cities encountered along the way. Walking turns to running as Tom and his friends chase after the pilfered pack, all to a vibrant and authentic beat. When they fail to catch the thief, Tom’s shouted pleas are for a single object; whilst his fellow pilgrims carry their life in a bag, Tom’s is in the box.
The countrified rhythms which follow Tom whilst underfoot, inspired by James Taylor, give bounce and some levity to the scenes, lending the walkers the stamina needed to see each day through. The use of a soundtrack alongside the original score is most successful when the third act kicks off with a movie-defining montage: the release of tension as the group of pilgrims finally click together and start to fully enjoy the constant movement and repetitive originality of the Camino is cut to ‘Thank U’ by Alanis Morissette. As Tom, Joost, Sarah and Jack reach Santiago de Compostela, the destination of their pilgrimage, well-heeled emotions well up and Bates lets his score soar as the pilgrims fall to their knees to give thanks.
You don’t choose a life; you live one. The journey is the destination. Many a film has been crippled into cliché by maxims like these, yet The Way manages to wear them proudly and stand up tall. This is achieved through the charisma of the cast, the magnificence of the photography and the universality of the message. The Camino de Santiago is often described as a metaphor, and The Way is no different. The subject matter may at first appear miserable and pious, but instead the film is unashamedly pro-people, an advocate of living life to the full and taking the time to see the world. Although you may watch with tears in your eyes, these transform from drops of sorrow to streams of joy. The Camino metaphor is life – the people you meet, the hardships you face – and the lesson learnt is to take your time and appreciate the beauty of the world and its occupants. The Way may show an idealised camino, but, if you choose to follow it, your own will be equally unique and powerful.