Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘The Way’: Soul-Cleansing via Pilgrimage

July 22, 2020 Updated: July 22, 2020

PG-13 | | Comedy, Drama | 7 October 2011 (USA limited)

Back in 2010 when “The Way” came out, one immediately assumed that movie stars Emilio Estevez and father Martin Sheen made this movie with their troubled movie star brother and son Charlie Sheen in mind, in hopes that he’d see the need for a thorough soul-cleansing.

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Emilio Estevez (R) gives direction to his father, Martin Sheen, on the set of “The Way.” (Arc Entertainment)

Like so many actors before him who succumbed to the excesses of Hollywood and successfully recovered (“Iron Man” star Robert Downey Jr. being a prime example; Martin Sheen himself being another), one hoped “The Way” would give Charlie (who was going through a particularly toxic period at the time) a road to a Damascus type of revelation.

Regardless of Charlie’s personal journey, brother Emilio succeeded in creating a humanistic road-trip drama that captures the spirit and offers an example of seeking meaning in one’s life during these complicated times.

two men in passport office in "The Way"
Tcheky Karyo (L) and Martin Sheen in “The Way.” (Arc Entertainment)

Tom (Martin Sheen) is an ophthalmologist. His son Daniel (Emilio Estevez) is a seeker, who has called off his Ph.D. studies to walk the 1,000-year-old Camino de Santiago de Compostela, or Way of St. James, a network of old pilgrimage routes covering 760 km (about 475 miles), from St. Jean Pied de Port in southern France, to Santiago in Spain.

four pilgrims in an open landscape in "The Way"
(L–R) Yorick van Wageningen, Deborah Kara Unger, James Nesbitt, and Martin Sheen walking the ancient pilgrimage of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in a scene from the picturesque pilgrimage movie, “The Way.” (Arc Entertainment)

Daniel dies in an accident in the mountains. Tom flies to France to identify the body, and decides to finish the journey for his son, scattering Daniel’s ashes along The Way.

man stands at grave marker in "The Way"
Tom (Martin Sheen) visiting the gravesite of his deceased son in “The Way.” (Arc Entertainment)

On the Camino, he meets a gregarious, chubby Dutchman named Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), whose quest is to lose weight; a cynical, angry Canadian (Deborah Kara Unger), whose quest is to quit smoking; and a garrulous Irish travel writer (James Nesbitt), who, while clearly having kissed the Blarney Stone, has writer’s block.

four pilgrims pose on "The Way"
(L–R) Martin Sheen, Deborah Kara Unger, James Nesbitt, and Yorick van Wageningen in a scene from “The Way.” (Arc Entertainment)

We follow them through the bucolic French and Basque countryside, along steep paths in the Pyrenees, through copses, vineyards, quaint inns, and hostels, and over hill and dale.

The acoustic guitar-laden soundtrack is inviting. Also cozy are the communal meals of bread and cheese, Joost’s Dutch-inflected “Let’s have a goffee,” an observed innkeeper’s private moment twirling a wine-colored tablecloth in a Walter Mitty-esque bullfight, and the way the Europeans love to heatedly debate ancient history as if it weren’t ancient at all. It’s a pleasure to see how current and visceral the ancient tales are for the descendants of those lands.

There’s more than a little of “The Wizard of Oz” about the way the group forms and the roles of the four main characters. They joke, offend, confront each other, have a tiny war, get drunk, philosophize, have adventures together, and end up bonding deeply.

man and woman and small cairn in "The Way"
Romy Baskerville and Martin Sheen in “The Way.” (Arc Entertainment)

Among the many interesting things about the film are the campfire debates about what constitutes a true pilgrim and a true pilgrimage. A false pilgrim eliminates suffering by riding bicycles or horses and indulging in creature comforts, and at one point our new friends collectively lapse into this type of blasé pilgrimage: They cheat by checking into a luxurious hotel with cognac and masseurs—compliments of Tom.

two men one woman hiking in "The Way"
(L–R) Martin Sheen, Deborah Kara Unger, and Yorick van Wageningen hiking hard in a scene from “The Way.” (Arc Entertainment)

A real pilgrim is destitute, chooses suffering for soul-cleansing, that is, the (Christian) atonement of sin or the (Buddhist) repayment of karmic debt. This is visually depicted when the travelers eventually cross paths with a real, heavy-duty, old-school version of the pilgrimage: silent monks carrying a massive, heavy wooden cross, with their backs bleeding from self-flagellation.

3 men and a woman taking a break from hiking in "The Way"
(L–R) Yorick van Wageningen, Deborah Kara Unger, James Nesbitt, and Martin Sheen, in a scene from “The Way.” (Arc Entertainment)

The modern pilgrimage depicted in the film would appear to be, in large part, about forming friendships. To be sure, deep bonds and sharing offer part of the sea change of the soul sought on a pilgrimage. But, as evidenced by the spiritually tough, hard-men monks, it’s still a far cry from the original version, where, in addition to the physical hardship, a scouring, deep loneliness was key for a true cleansing of the soul.

Yet this simple, alluring film is highly inspiring. Still waters run deep. And perhaps it had the intended effect: Charlie Sheen said, of recently becoming sober:

“‘I essentially have nothing to promote today … actually I do have something to promote: I’m promoting sanity,'” he said. “‘I’m promoting a sense of nobility and a return to a more innocent place and just gratitude and knowing that whatever comes next, work-wise, that the version that I will deliver will be spectacular.'”

‘The Way’
Director: Emilio Estevez
Starring: Martin Sheen, Emilio Estevez, Deborah Kara Unger, James Nesbitt, Yorick van Wageningen
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hours, 3 minutes
Release Date: Oct. 7, 2011 (USA, limited release)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch