The Way opens on a brilliant blue surfer's paradise of a beach. Azure skies, palm-lined boulevard. Inside an office nearby, wealthy widowed optometrist Tom (Martin Sheen) is administering an eye test to an elderly patient. We're gently immersed in the world of Tom's practice as he receives a message from his errant adult son Daniel (played by Sheen's real life son Emilio Estevez, who also wrote and directed this clearly personal project), who is travelling Europe without a mobile phone. We register the tension in their relationship, see Tom grumble about Daniel's choices. We then witness Tom in his element on the golf course, surrounded by friends cut from similar cloth.
Having carefully yet casually set this unremarkable world up, Estevez gives us one of this long film's most powerful moments - Tom receives a phone call, like lightning from a clear blue sky, informing him of the death of the son he'd been grumbling about until so recently. It captures perfectly the often mundane, utterly unforeshadowed nature of much bad news and succeeds in showing us Tom's shock, where so many films would telegraph this moment.
Unfortunately, this naturalistic approach is abandoned, recaptured, and abandoned again many times over the course of a long film that starts rather interestingly by exploring the incivility and social mores of grief, but then takes a detour into the nature of pilgrimmage, becoming ultimately far too invested in why some people go on epic treks, at the expense of a taut narrative. For it is through attempting the 800k+ trek that his son had just begun at the time of his death that Tom decides to honour his memory. Fine, but this needs to be Tom's film, not a film about pilgrims.
The Way's trump card is Martin Sheen, who gives a performance that is sympathetic but doesn't crave our approval, creating a character who feels completely believeable. The film also does a nice line in solitary sketches - when Martin's backpack falls in a river, we're problem solving alongside him as to how best to get it back, we can feel how cold the water is, the annoyance of having to dry everything he owns.
Where the film falls down is in its attempts to convey the cameraderie of the road via a succession of encounters with other characters, each with their own problems and lessons to learn. This risks creating a giant hugging-and-learning exercise, where we might as well be watching a film about group therapy if they weren't hiking at the same time. That might indeed be the point the film is trying to make, but it seems too close to the characters to say anything more critically objective about this idea.