One of the best films of the year, Emilio Estevez's The Way is about a man, Tom, who is confronted with the death of his only child, his son Daniel. Tom, played by 71-year-old Martin Sheen, learns that Daniel was killed in a freak accident in Spain while walking the pilgrimage of Camino de Santiago, commonly referred to in English as "The Way of St. James" or, simply, "The Way." Tom heads to Spain to retrieve Daniel's ashes—then decides, practically on the spur of the moment, to process his shock and grief by walking the Camino himself, while wearing Daniel's hiking boots and strapping on Daniel's already well-stocked backpack.
With The Way, writer/director Emilio Estevez—who also plays Daniel in flashbacks in the movie—continues to build his reputation as a filmmaker. Like his 2006 film, Bobby, about a day in the life of the hotel where Robert Kennedy would be assassinated, The Way begins with setting rather than character. Estevez the writer has a knack for picking settings that allow him to bring together characters who might not interact much in other contexts, and the result is that the relationships come across as anything but rote.
Tom starts out on his trek alone, but as is often the case in close environments, he is thrown together with a small group of people whom fate has brought together at just the right time. Sarah is a woman who uses an abrasive, assertive demeanor to keep the world at arm's length, but who is herself carrying a load of hurt. Joost is more outwardly cheerful, insisting that the pilgrimage is recreational, but gradually letting his guard down to reveal his wounds. These three are eventually joined by Jack, a travel writer whose alcoholism may be either the cause of or an attempt to numb many of his own personal demons. I really admire the way the film conveys the spiritual and emotional dynamic of how being acutely conscious of one's own brokenness can make a person more empathetic toward others—particularly those who might simply rouse our censure or irritation at other times or in other circumstances.
The interplay between Tom and Sarah is particularly complex and moving. Unger is not as widely known or celebrated as Sheen, but she holds her own in scenes with him, building a multi-faceted character in a supporting role. Some of the film's most moving moments come in the interplay between these two. As we learn more about Sarah and her reasons for walking the Camino, we not only understand her character better but also why these two people are well suited to understand and help each other. Grief and sorrow often alienate those who feel it from others; words of sympathy grate when we feel those expressing them cannot truly understand what we are going through. When Sarah finally shares a difficult part of her past with Tom, it is one of the more powerful moments in the film because the emphasis within the story is less on what she did than on the devastating emotional consequences of her actions.