The benefits of keeping in shape are on full display in “The Way,” starring Martin Sheen as Tom, an out-of-shape Santa Barbara physician who takes up a trek of many hundreds of miles in Spain. His journey is prompted by the accidental death of his son Daniel (Emilio Estevez, who also wrote and directed) during a storm in the Pyrenees. Daniel, who had been somewhat estranged from his father for reasons that are never made clear, had set out to traverse the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of Saint James, a spiritual path across Spain that has been undertaken by pilgrims for a thousand years.
To honor his son’s commitment, Tom, a lapsed Roman Catholic, completes the journey, scattering Daniel’s ashes as he goes. Eventually he falls in with a trio of other pilgrims: a Dutchman who wants to lose weight (Yorick van Wageningen), an Irishman trying to write a book about the experience (James Nesbitt), and a Canadian who wants to quit smoking (Deborah Kara Unger).
In other words, there is nothing terribly spiritual about the journey for any of these people, and yet the sheer arduousness of the trek, the beauty of the countryside, and the personal revelations that ensue all combine to create a transcendent haze. The film is coy about its religiosity.
Estevez directs with ease and assurance but, both internally and externally, not enough happens to these people. Tom loses his backpack twice – that’s the height of the drama. In contrast to the other actors, who all seem to be projecting to the balcony, Sheen gives a fine, unshowy performance. Grade: B (PG-13 for some thematic elements, drug use, and smoking.)