Tom (Martin Sheen) is a widowed optician estranged from his PhD drop-out son Daniel (Emilio Estevez). Tom is called to France after Daniel dies in a walking accident. Tom discovers that Daniel was beginning walking the pilgrimage route to Santiago del Compostela. Tom makes a snap decision, arranges for Daniel's cremation, intending to complete the 'way' in memory of his son. Along the path, the grieving though emotionally distant Tom is joined by other pilgrims, each of whom have their own private reasons for making the journey.
Part road movie, part Spanish travelogue, part Catholic church publicity project, part character study, The Way attempts, in a generally low-key and modestly effective manner, to create a range of effects. The structure is perhaps inevitably episodic and not all the characters (a bitter divorcee, an overweight party-loving Dutchman, a blocked Irish writer being most prominent) are necessarily well-drawn, but the film is honest in its intentions and gets away with a lot through a direct approach. Some may baulk at the unquestioning attitude paid towards Catholicism, though directer Estevez plays this along the lines of personal character affiliation rather than an overarching statement to the audience. The writing throughout is less confident than the direction, but there's a lot of pleasure to be gained from the location shooting and some of the ideas on display.
Most of all, this works as another showcase for Martin Sheen who, particularly in the first half of the movie, displays his command of screen underplaying. The film loses sight of his character a little in the middle third, and never quite establishes what his character is looking for, but Sheen throughout reminds of his ability to play a principled, motivated man.
The Way perhaps isn't for everyone, relying too often on some well-worn road movie sight gags, a handful of European cultural stereotypes and some slightly-too-quirky story asides which at times feel disjointed from the rather more serious film at its centre, but there's plenty to appreciate as well.