Martin Sheen plays a stressed doctor, whose son loses his life on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail. He travels to France to take his son back home. In flashbacks we see his son, Emilio Estevez (also the director), who is actually Sheen’s son in real life too. Being a rather sour, unspiritual man, the doctor doesn’t really understand his son’s desire to travel the world, and neither is he familiar with the pilgrimage route.
In a rather blunt, ill-timed way, the film lets the French police officer tell Martin Sheen the quick history of the Camino de Santiago. The info-dump is clearly for the audience, but seems out of place while Sheen receives the belongings of his son. While Sheen should be mourning over his son, having just seen his dead body, the morgue seems like a tourist information office and the officer goes on and on, showing him all the Camino trail stamps.
In any case, to help him cope with his loss and to get closer to his son, he starts walking the pilgrimage trail with his son’s backpack. It’s occasionally funny, occasionally sad. Sheen is a man with few emotions in his face and he seems dour, but he’s also not used to traveling and it is funny to see him cope with it. An extraverted, goodhearted Dutchman named Joost plays the comic relief, and pulls him out of his shell. He’s also a walking Dutch cliché with drugs on him (he even says “that makes me a cliché” at one point, but it’s not drugs-related).
I can’t help comparing this to the recent movie A Walk in the Woods (2015), in which the aging Robert Redford walks the Appalachian trail. The Way is the more interesting movie, with a stronger, deeper heart and lots more interesting visuals of the walk itself. You get the feeling that the film crew actually walked the whole thing. Wait, let me google if that’s correct. Hmm, yes it seems like they walked a large part of the trail with a small crew and a couple of cameras. Awesome.
Sheen collects fellow travelers along the road, and their eccentric personalities break the immersion a bit too much for my taste. From the real landscapes you’re suddenly pulled back by the characters and reminded that you are watching a film that tries to convey a meaning. Which is precisely what the characters are trying to squeeze out of the trip. Especially the Irish writer is a bit too much in how scripted his introduction was.
I bet you can guess how the story unfolds. They all open up, need each other, and come out changed. Or do they? I was glad to see some spice, some hitting and yelling, otherwise it would have stayed too flat. The road, as always, is a nice metaphor for personal change. You travel, you go up and down. The film does good things with this; it’s engaging and affecting. A very understated work. It’s inspiring too for people who want to change something in their lives but have a hard time at it.