If you ever wondered what happened to that dream boat Emilio Estevez, once upon a time in the west, one of Hollywood’s Young Guns, here’s your answer.
He never went away: he just spent the last nine years in University studying anthropology, only to throw it all away in his final year due to a perceived lack of authenticity. Instead of collecting his PhD from Berkeley, he went rambling through Europe, started out on the storied Camino de Santiago de Compostela (A holy walk though mountainous Basque country across the north coast of spain), and got killed in a freak storm on his first day. Only then did circumstances contrive to reconcile him with his Dad.
Of course, I am confusing life with art: easy to do in this film in which Estevez, these days a slightly jowly forty-something (emphatically nothing wrong with that, writes your jowly, forty-something correspondent) directs his own father, Martin Sheen, as a successful man – an ophthalmologist no less, journeying out of California for the first time and, perhaps – ha ha – finally having his eyes opened, to collect the body of his son.
Now, in the Family Sheen’s current circumstances, there’s some irony here. For, of course Sheen’s other son, of late, has been prescribing what looks to be a terminal arc from the heavens to the ground. I wondered more than a couple of times during this picture if Sheen senior wasn’t wasting his energy reconciling himself with the wrong son. Emilio seems fine, if a little dull. It’s Charlie who seems in need of intervention.
So to this picture. Exploiting the Spanish Pyrenees as shamelessly as it does, it’s a beautiful film to look at. It ambles at a gentle, reflective pace quite suited to the sort of introspection it seems to require. It connected with me quickly: I am about Estevez’ age, like most men our age I had a complicated relationship with my own father, and have steadily complicating ones with my sons. But oddly, the connection, once made, fades. I was wilfully looking for metaphors; searching for affirmations that this was a useful frame of reference for the film. But – while the film is overburdened with metaphor – none confirming this view came. The Way isn’t, principally, about the untangling and righting (too late, as it inevitably is) of strains between father and son. It’s more introverted than that: it is about a man coming to terms with the opportunities lost – the opportunity to relate to his son; the opportunity to smell the flowers; the opportunity to walk on foreign shores – and make the most of the ones still left. That’s a more private and not quite as appealing thing.
Martin Sheen is a wonderful actor and, I imagine, a good guy. Somehow his characters always seem infused with a quiet humility, self-awareness and pragmatism. He often articulates exactly what his audience is thinking, however contrarian it may be to the Hollywood archetype. He’s like that here. When he first encounters each of the three supporting characters he meets on the way, his first, and second, reaction is to walk away. He never quite has the energy to shake them off though, and eventually relationships form.
Nonetheless, the supporting characters: an affable but intrusive Dutchman called Joost, a waspish, neurotic Canadian divorcee called Sarah and – by far the most ghastly, James Nesbitt as an Irish travel writer called Jack – aren’t well drawn or likeable enough to hold the attention: this is left to Sheen, who carries it off well enough. Nesbitt, in particular, hams dreadfully and spoils the flow of the film for a good ten minutes, before settling down. Nor does Estevez use tricks of the trade to force our emotional investment the way, for example, Clint Eastwood does in Hereafter. Jane isn’t sexy. Joost isn’t vulnerable. Jack isn’t funny. It is a cantankerous loner with three irritating people he doesn’t seem to be able to lose (his rucksack, however – a metaphorical totem – he manages to lose surprisingly often!)
For all that, this is a far better film than Hereafter. It isn’t trying to please anyone, and will accordingly end up pleasing anyone who is looking for a more subtle, reflective and sophisticated evening that the silver screen has, in recent times, been inclined to offer.
Director: Emilio Estevez
Stars: Martin Sheen, Emilio Estevez, Deborah Kara Unger
Runtime: 128 min