'The Way' is one of my very favorite films of 2011. Without coming across as preachy or pretentious, it's a non-denominational tale of self-discovery and spirituality. 'The Way' was produced, written and directed by Emilio Estevez and stars his real-life father (and father in the film) Martin Sheen (aka Ramon Gerard Estevez).
Sheen plays Tom, a complacent old man who is stuck in his ways. Since the passing of his late wife, he's been in a rut of safety and comfort. He goes to his successful and routine job as an optician, he has a regular tee-time with his friends at the local country club, and so on. Tom is content with his solitary life and doesn't understand why his only son Daniel (Estevez) wants to live outside such a lifestyle. In flashbacks, we see an argument between the two concerning this issue. Daniel is nearly finished with his doctorate in anthropology, but has chosen to quit in order to "see the world." Stuck-in-his-ways Tom can't wrap his mind around that – but everything is about to change.
Tom's world is rocked when a gets a phone call from a French police officer telling him that Daniel has died. Daniel was caught on a trail in the Pyrenees Mountains of Southern France when an unpredictable storm hit, so Tom has to leave the comfort of his routine life to recover the body. On the way there, his mind is filled with memories of their last conversation. Daniel told his father, "You don't choose a life, you live one." This theme echoes throughout the film and leads Tom to the life-changing decision that he's about to make.
Daniel died on the first day of an 800 kilometer pilgrimage that people from around the world have been making for over a thousand years. If fact, tens of thousands of people continue to make this pilgrimage each year. The trail is known as "El Camino de Santiago," or "The Way of Saint James." It is believed to be the same trail that James (from the Bible) took on his last pilgrimage. His remains can be found in the Santiago de Compostela cathedral at the end of the journey. With Daniel's last words of wisdom ringing in his head, Tom decides to have Daniel's body cremated so that he can walk the trail for his son and scatter the ashes along the way.
Estevez based his screenplay on selected stories from 'Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim's Route' by Jack Hitt. The book gives you a strong sense of what it would be like to walk El Camino de Santiago – what would you see, who you would meet, what you would feel. It also explains some of the infinite reasons that these modern-day pilgrims have for walking the trail each year. 'The Way' consists of several real-life accounts, Tom's being the central story. One by one, on the trail he meets up with three other pilgrims who accompany him on this spiritual journey.
An interesting outside aspect to 'The Way' is that Estevez's heritage is on El Camino. The parents of Martin Sheen, Estevez's grandparents, grew up in a small town along El Camino and immigrated to the United States. The Way of Saint James holds such a high place of importance in their lives that Estevez and Sheen own homes along it.
For being a tiny independent film, 'The Way' has a lot going for it. As you would expect, Sheen gives an amazing performance – in fact, it's one of his best. Estevez has written and directed before, but 'The Way' really shows off what he's capable of. Nothing is faked in the film. Every shot is on-location, revealing the geographic beauty of France and Spain. His shots are fantastic and the subtleties that he adds within them are brilliant. The original score from Tyler Bates is not only very fitting, but exceptionally strong. And for a movie of such a low budget, it features great songs from some high profile artists – James Taylor, Coldplay, The Shins and Alanis Morissette.
'The Way' isn't perfect, but it's such a delicious slice of real life that any and all problems it carries can be forgiven. It is so intimate and personal that when the credits roll, you feel like you yourself have made the pilgrimage - no matter your religious beliefs. 'The Way' works on such a basic and fundamental level of humanity that anyone can connect with its characters, morals and message. Mrs. Hickman and I were both so moved by 'The Way' that we plan to make the 800 kilometer trek when our children are older.
It's not often that quiet little films come around with such moving and inspiring tales, so take advantage of it and check out 'The Way' at the first possible chance.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Arc Entertainment has placed 'The Way' on a BD-25 in a standard blue keepcase. The cover art is decent, but could have been looked better, like the promo art for the film. Aside from a skippable FBI warning, the only thing to play before the menu is a trailer for 'Seven Days in Utopia.'
For a film as beautifully shot as 'The Way,' it saddens me that the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer isn't better. Although clean and clear, it lacks detail and sharpness and suffers from a few compression flaws.
Shot on 16 mm stock, 'The Way' has a very soft look. Details don't leap off the screen, and it doesn't help that the focus isn't 100 percent on. It does, however, feature a light amount of grain, giving it that nice filmic feel. Some shots have more grain embedded in them than others, but it never becomes a nuisance. I tend to like it more for the aesthetics. The image is overall noise-free.
Black levels aren't as rich as they should be. One dark interior shot of a train passing through a long tunnel features crushing. The blacks aren't bad, but just like the details, not what we expect these days. Colors also aren't as vibrant as the should be. The landscapes shown should obviously be poignant, but are ultimately mild.
The creative opening credits sequence features banding, but I didn't notice any other instances beyond that. Edge enhancement, DNR and artifacts are not an issue.
The Blu-ray case claims that there's an English Dolby 5.1 and an English Stereo track on the disc – nothing lossless – but that's incorrect. The one and only track featured on the Blu-ray is an English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio.
The lossless audio track is a little on the quiet side - be prepared to turn up your master volume a little louder than normal – but is much more of what we'd expect than the video quality.
As always, the music fills all channels with depth and clarity. From pop songs and traditional music to its original score, all of the music in 'The Way' is full and rich. The vocals are somewhat front-heavy, but still more dynamic that I thought they'd be.
The area of the audio lacking the most is effects. Many of the effects – no matter where they're located in relation to the screen – emit from the front speakers. However, certain specific scenes break the norm. Loud crowd scenes are all-encompassing audio-wise. A drunken fight between Tom and his new friends features audio that resembles a bassy storm of confrontation. The sound of thunderous waves crashing into a rocky shoreline are lifelike. Better than the video, the audio quality is quite decent.
'The Way' is one of the best releases of 2011. It didn't receive much publicity, but its 80 percent 'Rotten Tomatoes' score shows that I'm not alone in finding 'The Way' a more than worthy film. A quote from 'The Washington Post' found on the Blu-ray's cover art calls it "funny, moving, hip and transcendent," to which I agree and add "heartfelt, honest and highly spiritual – no matter your religious beliefs." It's a "road film" unlike any you've seen before – the road is made of dust and footprints and the relationship that's mended and strengthened is that of a grieving father and his recently deceased son. Martin Sheen gives one of his very finest performances and Emilio Estevez proves that he's got the talent to write, produce and direct. The video quality is much softer than new releases, but the content of the film and the decent audio quality makes up for that. With the majority feeling like EPK footage, the Blu-ray is also light on hearty special features, with the exception of a strong commentary track. If you enjoy the film as much as I do, then the commentary is something you'll definitely want to check out. All in all, 'The Way' deserves a much better Blu-ray release, but it sure isn't bad for the small independent film that it is.