In a revealing interview published earlier this month by the National Catholic Reporter, Martin Sheen talks candidly about his past struggles with alcoholism and spiritual emptiness. Recalling the hellish experience of filming Apocalypse Now, he says, “I was playing a frightened, confused professional killer, an unstable frightened alcoholic. I didn’t have a clue who this character was supposed to be and the director [Francis Ford Coppola] said to me: ‘It’s you. Whoever wants to arrive at any kind of certainty as an actor brings themselves.’ I realized I could wrestle this demon. There’s an old saying that an artist gets a license to play this part. I used the license to go to a place that was both cathartic and terrifying.”
The conversation, in which Sheen talks about his commitment to social-justice Catholicism, was part of Sheen’s publicity tour for his latest film, The Way. The movie was written, produced, and directed by Sheen’s oldest son, Emilio Estevez, and also concerns a spiritual journey. Unfortunately, there’s nothing in it nearly as interesting or thoughtful as that interview. It is a pile of tepid hokum, full of maudlin clichés and cheap jokes that seem even cheaper for failing to be funny. (For what it’s worth, it is very good-looking. It could serve as a fine tourism-bureau primer on the charms of northern Spain, which is where Sheen’s father was born.)
Sheen plays Thomas Avery, a 60-something ophthalmologist and widower whose comfortable routine of eye exams and country-club golf outings is interrupted by the news that his only child, a somewhat wayward grown son, has died while hiking in Europe. The son, Daniel (played in flashbacks and ghostly glimpses by Estevez), was a lapsed grad student who had set out to find himself by trekking around the world, to his father’s displeasure. In an exchange that haunts the elder Avery, Daniel tells him, “You don’t choose a life. You live it.”
Thomas discovers that Daniel had died in a freak storm shortly after setting out along el Camino de Santiago, a medieval pilgrimage route that runs from the French Pyrenees to Santiago do Compostela in northwestern Spain. It remains popular with modern hikers and seekers. So, of course, the grief-stricken father sets out to finish the journey, carrying his son’s ashes.
If you guess that he meets up with a motley assemblage of other lost souls, and that they bond and learn important lessons from each other through a series of small, sometimes comical adventures and mishaps, then maybe you attended the same Narrative Arc 101 screenwriting class as Estevez. But probably you wouldn’t people the story with quite such hoary figures as a jolly Dutchman from Amsterdam who smokes a lot of hash, or a frustrated Irish writer with a drinking problem. And how about that fourth member of the party, the token woman, a sharp-tongued Canadian who likes to poke fun at Avery’s generational foibles (she calls him Boomer). Do you think there’s a dark secret behind all her anger, one that might spill forth at a prime moment somewhere along the trail?
And let’s not even talk about the Gypsies. (Yes, there are Gypsies.) Or the happy coincidence that almost everyone Avery meets, even in small Spanish towns, speaks perfect English. Or that whole ophthalmologist thing. Just in case you missed the metaphor, one of the other characters helpfully says to Avery, “So, you help people see the world more clearly.”
In that National Catholic Reporter interview, Sheen reveals that the inspiration for The Way came from his own interest in the Camino. At one point, he tried to recruit other members of his family to walk it with him, but persuaded only a grandson and a friend. After arriving in Spain, they realized they weren’t physically or logistically prepared. “So we rented a car in Madrid and went to Burgos and stayed in a small albergo, or small hotel that looks after pilgrims,” Sheen says. He adds, “It was a little upscale.” When he got home, he told Estevez the Camino might make for a good drama.
In the movie, the Irish writer character is taking notes on the journey for a book—one that he hopes will finally break him free of hack travelogues. At one point Avery turns to him and says, “Write it the way it happened. Write the truth.” But there’s not a whiff of truth anywhere in The Way, which turns into a hack travelogue itself. It’s a fantasy of self-fulfillment by people who were too lazy to make the real journey.