In "The Way," Martin Sheen gives an effective performance as a man who gains more than he expected during a religious pilgrimage. Sheen plays Tom, an eye doctor and widower who early in the film learns his son Daniel has died. (Sheen's real-life son, Emilio Estevez, plays Daniel; he also directed the film and wrote the screenplay.) The fatal accident occurred as Daniel was embarking on the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, a religious walk spanning hundreds of miles in Europe. After he has collected his son's ashes, Tom decides to complete the journey his son had started, taking Daniel's ashes along.
Tom's decision to make the pilgrimage at first appears to be an obligation to his son, and not one in which Tom is eager to explore his own spiritual need. But that changes, especially as Tom comes to know three other travelers: Yoost (Yorick van Wageningen), a constantly hungry Dutchman; Sarah, an abrasive Canadian (Deborah Kara Unger), and Jack (James Nesbitt), an Irish writer whose nominal plan to collect travelers' stories obscures his own need for the quest. However, they appear on the outside, all have a yearning they hope the Camino can satisfy.
As the four travelers walk, they talk, some more willingly than others. They also have chances to pause and reflect on both the beauty of their surroundings and the other people they encounter along the Camino or at its resting places. Tom seems the least willing to absorb the images and ideas during his travels, but even he proves unable to resist the self-examination the pilgrimage entails. And some of that self-examination involves Daniel, who not only is in Tom's memory but seems to appear from time to time among the other pilgrims.
Estevez's script, adapted in part from Jack Hitt's book "Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim's Route Into Spain," is a bit clunky at times. At others, it appears too eager to spell out its messages. But there still are fine moments, a whimsical nod to "The Wizard of Oz" and excellent performances to lift the movie out of the ordinary.
Sheen, himself devoutly religious and a previous visitor to the Camino, ably presents Tom's struggle with loss, his barely contained anger and his eventual confrontation with his own faith. Van Wageningen, often expected to serve as comic relief, nonetheless finds the neediness in Joost, giving him an ever more touching quality. But perhaps the biggest moment in the film belongs to Unger, who may be familiar to viewers of TV's "Combat Hospital"; she is called upon to deliver a deeply emotional monologue, and she makes the most of it.
But "The Way" deserves to be seen for more than its performances. It also has a firm understanding of human frailty, and of what people need to get through the pain that life too often bestows on them.