Martin Sheen’s family has achieved something really remarkable in the new movie The Way (which opened today in select markets): a film about grief that is sentimental without being excessively treacly, and manages to offer consolation and hope without indulging in the easy answers that typically blight the genre.
Sheen plays an aging American country-clubber devastated with grief at the accidental death of his son (played by his actual son Emilio Estevez) during a hike on the traditional route to the Spanish shrine at Santiago de Compostela. Sheen ends up making the pilgrimage walk himself, carrying his son’s ashes in a metal box. He befriends three other pilgrims, all dealing with their own issues — issues including marital troubles, writer’s block, and . . . guilt over an abortion. It is indeed rare that one runs across an anti-abortion message in a movie. What makes the message in this one so effective is that there’s no recitation of political talking points, pro-life or pro-choice: There is just a character who has had an abortion and is dealing with the emotional consequences.
The treatment of the abortion is part and parcel of the movie’s overall approach to the question of how to heal a broken heart. What it proposes is not programmatic: Accept the particular religion of the shrine at Santiago de Compostela and everything will be OK. Rather, it suggests that suffering can be got through with a certain level of openness to life, and an honesty about one’s own limitations and one’s own rage at suffering and injustice. (In my view, “God” is at the heart of this openness and honesty, and the appropriate word for the healing is “grace”; but the phenomenon exists even among people who do not consider themselves religious. Because, again in my view, God exists even among people who do not consider themselves religious.) Best of all, the film makes this point with a few smiles, and not at all in the heavy-handed and ponderous way in which I have just made it.
Sheen turns in a splendid performance, a real joy to watch. He’s about due for a career-achievement Oscar anyway, and would deserve it for this. The movie was written, produced, and directed by Emilio Estevez; all told, a great achievement for a family that has had its share of grief this past year.