I just saw the new Emilio Estevez movie! How many times do you get to say that in your life? I didn’t see Bobby and I don’t count his made-for-cable semi-biographical story of the Mitchell brothers Rated X. So, for me, the last time I could say that would be for Wisdom, the first movie Estevez directed in which he starred with Demi Moore as Bonnie and Clyde-style bank robbers of sorts.
Not a great movie but not, I thought, at all unwatchable. So, 25 years later, I was actually kind of favorably inclined toward seeing this film, and I can honestly say it’s the best Emilio Estevez movie ever. That sounds kind of snarky but it’s not really.
In fact, it’s kind of cool: This is the third movie in as many weeks we’ve seen where the question of religion and spirituality were central to the story. Machine Gun Preacher is (far and away) the best and boldest (probably too much for some) of the three, but Take Shelter has its own quiet depth in its smaller scope.
The Way has an even smaller scope still, as the story of a father—played by real life father Martin Sheen—who goes to collect his son’s remains in Europe after he dies attempting The Way of Saint James, a thousand year old pilgrimage. The younger Estevez’ role is virtually a cameo; this movie could be seen as a vehicle for Sheen, who I kept hoping would say “Campostela. I can’t believe I’m still in Campostela.”
Basically, the son, Daniel has dropped out of school a year before getting his PhD in Cultural Anthropology and decided instead to walk The Way. His father, Tom (an optometrist) objects strenuously, tells him he’s ruining his life, and that real people can’t take a month off their life for this sort of thing.
Of course, I’m sitting there thinking “Emilio Estevez is 50. If he hasn’t gotten his degree by now, he’s already wasted his life.” I mean, if he’s still in that “studying in preparation to launch his life,” he’s kind of missed the boat. Now, he’s playing a guy ten years younger (nearly 40, I think the movie says) and so is Martin Sheen (“over 60” compared to real life over 70), but even then I gotta wonder how much a difference a month makes.
But I rolled with it. The movie wanted father-son tension in a neat package, and this was reasonable shorthand.
Anyway, next thing you know, Daniel has died on the first day of his journey and Tom must go to France to collect him. (The Way is mostly in Spain but can start in France.) Once there, Tom becomes possessed with the idea of traveling The Way for Daniel, and spreading his ashes along the route.
This is basically the start of the movie—really, you can get all this from the trailer.
So we got ourselves a road picture. A pilgrim’s progress, if you will. The elder Tom taking the 650 mile walk using Daniel’s supplies and carrying his ashes on his back. Naturally, he ends up with companions on this trip: a fat, jolly Dutch man, a sexy, bitter (Canadian?) divorcee and a drunk Irishman with writer’s block.
Yeah, it’s a little cliché. Occasionally, the dialogue gets precious in its attempt to be profound, but for the most part the younger Estevez stays his pen and lets the imagery and the action speak for him.
The four travelers are making their pilgrimage for non-religious, nor hardly even spiritual reasons, which is interesting. The Dutch guy, Joost, is just trying to lose weight. The divorcee, Sarah, is trying to give up smoking. Jack, the drunk Irish writer, is not on a pilgrimage so much as interviewing pilgrims for a travelogue piece. (Apparently, travelogues of The Way are about as old as The Way itself.)
Nonetheless, religion is everywhere, and the movie evokes a kind of Chaucerian feel, with characters drifting in-and-out, and giving a sense of this-is-how-things-have-been-for-centuries. (Maybe it’s more Dickensian, but I kept thinking Canterbury Tales.) There’s an interesting effect to all this, like God is watching all, and providing some sort of proving ground for the travelers.
In other words, the spirituality of the thing catches up with them, even if they don’t quite recognize it. Where this struck me—and maybe this was just me—was with Deborah Kara Unger, who plays the divorceé, and Angelina Molina who plays the caretaker at the pilgrims’ first overnight stop. These are both women who are famous, to a large extent, for being beautiful (and Unger’s figure, while well covered, does attract our male travelers’ attention), but they are not made up or shot in glowing light or anything of that sort.
Angelina Molina has the hand of death on her face. When Tom asks her if she’s ever done the trip she says, “When I was young I was too busy. Now I am too old.” She’s only 55! But she really does look dramatically old.
The whole thing comes off very well, as a very nice movie, with a kindness and depth that maybe isn’t really warranted. (Heh.) But it’s good. It’s not boring. Certain choices are interesting: Jack, the Irish writer, is a cute device for teasing information about Daniel out of Tom, and thereby Tom and his relationship with Daniel—but after setting it up, Estevez just has Tom do a short, very generic (like horoscope-level) bit of exposition and then pulls back, so you can’t hear what Tom’s saying.
The result is we don’t ever really know what Tom or Daniel is like. We only know Tom on his path from grief—another movie-based convenience is that he has to basically go through his catharsis about Daniel in 30 days. I think it’s too soon. Reality might be closer to a year of mourning, followed by doing the pilgrimage, but narratives work better when compressed.
Anyway, it’s a choice. And I’m not sure the movie suffers much, if at all, from it. They’re a father and son. They don’t always see eye-to-eye. Specific issues might have ended up seeming overly cute. At the same time, the movie isn’t necessarily going to resonate deeply as a result.
Overall, a job well done by Emilio, and a tour-de-force for Martin.