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The Way

Author: Emilio Estevez
Genre: Drama
Storyline: 7
Dialogue: 7
Characterization: 7
Writer’s Potential: 7

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Logline:

After his son dies on a spiritual pilgrimage, a disaffected ophthalmologist struggles to complete the same pilgrimage.

Synopsis:

TOM (60s) is an ophthalmologist living in Ventura, California. He sees clients and golfs with old doctor friends during the day. He spends his nights alone, occasionally hearing from his son, DANIEL (late 30s), who’s been abroad for nearly a decade. One day, Tom receives a call from a French official, who informs Tom that Daniel is dead. Tom is devastated. At his house, Tom can’t help reflecting on the past. He sees Daniel as he was 10 years ago, grief-stricken over the death of his mother, giving up his medical school track to travel abroad. Tom goes to a local cathedral to talk to the priest about funeral arrangements. The priest is disappointed that Tom has lost faith. Tom goes to France and takes a train into a small village. He meets with the official, HENRI, who called him about Daniel. Henri has Tom identify Daniel’s body, and the sight of it crushes Tom. Henri explains that Daniel went “on the camino” — the 800km pilgrimage from this small village to Santiago de Compostela, “The Way of Saint James,” the European equivalent of Mecca or the Western Wall. It’s a difficult, arduous journey, and the weather in the region is unpredictable. Daniel got caught in bad weather and was killed shortly after the first leg of his journey. Pilgrims take unofficial “passports” along the journey and have them stamped in each village along the way. Henri gives Tom Daniel’s passport, which has one lonely stamp, and Daniel’s backpack.

At a village restaurant, Tom tries to eat alone, but the place is packed with tourists and pilgrims. One of them, the Dutchman JOST (40s), sits with Tom because there are no other seats. Tom tries to ignore Jost as he cheerfully describes his motive for taking the pilgrimage — he wants to lose weight for his sister’s wedding. Tom goes back to his hotel room and looks through Daniel’s pack, trying to figure out the person Daniel had become. It’s well-stocked with supplies for the journey, as well as a cheap photo album showing Daniel all over the world, sometimes with a multitude of unknown girls. Tom imagines Daniel’s tragic end on the road, in which Daniel reaches a fork in the road and takes a difficult, unmarked path instead of the defined road. In the middle of the night, Tom shows up and Henri’s house. He tells Henri they must cremate Daniel immediately. With sympathy, Henri wakes the village mortician, who cremates the body and hands Tom a box with the ashes. Tom tells Henri he’s going to walk the camino. Henri warns against it, since Tom has neither the training nor supplies. Tom feels convinced that he has to leave in the morning, for Daniel’s sake. As he leaves at dawn, Henri seeks him out to give some advice, to sing if he gets bored, stay at “albergues” and “refugios” instead of camping, and don’t mind the blisters.

Tom hits the camino alone, learning big and small lessons quickly — always stop to dump pebbles out of boots, drink plenty of water, etc. — before reaching the fork in the road where Daniel died. Tom sees a recently erected cross in the dirt at the fork, symbolizing a fallen pilgrim. He stops there for a long time, and before he leaves, he sprinkles a small amount of Daniel’s ashes on the site. By the end of the day, Tom has crossed into Spain. By night, he has reached the sleepy Basque village of Roncesvalles. The albergue there is very unpleasant and uninviting. Tom is shocked by its resemblance to an American homeless shelter. He tries to sleep but has a difficult time with all the noise. Before long, Jost seeks him out. He gives Tom some food and offers his choice of earplugs or Ambien. The next day, Tom and Jost set off together.

Before long, Tom gets tired of Jost. Jost notices Tom periodically sprinkling ashes but doesn’t comment. Jost’s goal is to get to Pamplona, but Tom stops at a small village outside of the city. Jost continues on his way. The albergue in this village is much friendlier — a small group of people are having fun, drinking wine and telling stories. Among them is SARAH (30s), a Canadian with haunted eyes who smokes like a chimney and wrongly pegs Tom as a trend-loving Baby Boomer suffering from a midlife crisis. She tells Tom her goal is to quit smoking as soon as she reaches the end of the camino. The next morning, Sarah is still a bit brusque, but she apologizes for her hostility the night before. Seeing an English speaker reminded her of everything she came to the camino to escape. Tom heads out alone. While crossing a bridge over the River Arga, Tom drops Daniel’s pack, which contains the ashes and all the supplies. Tom dives in after it, struggling to swim against the current. He manages to get the pack and swim ashore. Forced to lay his clothes and the pack out to dry, he realizes he’ll have to camp along the river.

The next day, Tom makes it to Pamplona. He runs into Jost, who’s dismayed by how dull the town is when the bullfights aren’t happening. After humiliating himself in front of a waiter, Tom decides he may need Jost’s help. They start traveling the camino together. Before long, the pair runs into Sarah. She takes an immediate shine to Jost, especially when he offers her Ambien, while Tom grumbles because he doesn’t like either of them. The trio walk together, with Tom staying ahead of them most of the time. As the trio continues down the camino, their numbers grow. Tom meets an old priest from New York, FRANK, who ignores Tom’s protestations and gives him a set of rosary beads. They stay at an albergue built into a church, where the presiding priest gripes about the state of disrepair. He subtly guilt-trips the pilgrims into handing over cash for the church. As they get ready to sleep, the group — instigated by Jost — complain to each other about the shakedown. Tom watches the cacophony in silence, wondering how he ended up here. He has a vision of Daniel among the group, laughing and having fun.

Tom, Jost, and Sarah continue as a trio when they encounter an odd Irish pilgrim, JACK. He’s a writer, taking the pilgrimage in order to both get away from his stress and get an idea for his next book. He rambles endlessly about the metaphor of the road. Sarah finds him charming, but Tom is instantly rubbed the wrong way, especially when Jack hints that his book will chronicle the pilgrimage, meaning they’ll all be characters. Later, as Tom walks ahead of them and Sarah tunes them out with her iPod, Jost brings Jack up to speed about Tom and Sarah. Still later, Sarah tells Tom she thinks she’s finally figured out the real reason Tom’s on the pilgrimage — he’s sick and dying. Tom says that’s not it but refuses to tell her the real reason. They stop at an albergue that’s actually a gorgeous mansion owned by a man named EL RAMON. He stamps their passports, but they all grow wary of his eccentric behavior, and they grow nervous when they’re the only pilgrims. Their fear culminates in catching El Ramon carrying on a conversation with himself, pretending to be a woman. The pilgrims leave, setting up a campsite outside of town.

The next morning, Tom tries to sneak away from the group. Sarah catches him. He drops the box with Daniel’s ashes, which she snatches. He grabs her arm to pull it back, and she smacks him so hard, he checks for loose teeth. On the camino, Sarah admits she had an abusive husband that she fled Canada to escape. Tom tells her about Daniel’s ashes. She’s sympathetic, saying she terminated a pregnancy because she feared for the safety of her unborn child, and she still feels the baby with her. They share a moment of connection. The group arrives at a vineyard bodega, where they all get drunk on wine. Initially quiet, Tom gets tired of Jack’s pretentious rambling and becomes verbally abusive. He tries to storm away but falls down, drunk. A cop tries to help him get up, and Tom punches him out. He’s jailed. Jack bails Tom out. The group still lets him travel with them, but he’s become the black sheep, trailing instead of leading. Jack tells Tom he can pay him back by letting Jack use this story in his book. Tom balks, but he quickly realizes it’ll be harmless. Jack asks Tom for background information about Daniel. Tom says he was a lot like Jack.

In Burgos, the largest city they’ve passed through since Pamplona, a gypsy boy steals Tom’s pack. The pilgrims spring into action, chasing him into a tenement slum, where he disappears. Tom’s devastated, but the boy’s father, ISHMAEL, forces him to return the pack once they realize what’s inside. Ishmael invites the pilgrims to a wild gypsy party. Tom has a vision of Daniel at the party. Ishmael urges Tom to carry Daniel’s ashes further than the St. James cathedral, to Muxia. The next day, the group passes through Leon, where they seem a bunch of crazy fanatics. Distracted, Tom and the others don’t notice when obnoxious teenagers hurl old yogurt at them. It’s the last straw. Tom checks them all into separate rooms at a luxury hotel, where they can shower and relax. Jack tells them it’s too decadent for true pilgrims, but he changes his tune when he finds out it’s free. Finally able to relax alone, Tom is a little annoyed when Sarah knocks on his door, followed by Jost, followed by Jack. The group has fun together, and Tom slowly realizes he needs to be with these people, not alone. Tom tells them he needs to continue to Muxia, but the others say Santiago de Compostela is the end of the line for them. Some time later, the pilgrims pass a golf course, which Tom eyes with some amusement. They finally reach the St. James cathedral, where they observe a pilgrim mass and then “register” their names. Tom initially gives his name, then switches it to Daniel’s.

Not wanting the journey to end, the others do accompany Tom to Muxia, where an enormous stone church sits on a cliff beside the Atlantic. Jost realizes he hasn’t lost an ounce; Sarah continues to smoke; Jack is too awed by the church and the ocean view to write. Before Tom spreads Daniel’s ashes, he has another vision of him. Tom tells Daniel he came here to bring him home, but he won’t have anything to take him. Daniel touches Tom’s heart and tells him he does. Tom spreads the ashes. Much later, a happier, tanner, younger-looking Tom travels through Morocco, finally living his life.

Comments:

The Way is a sensitive but problematic character study about a stubborn man’s attempt to understand his estranged son. Although the character of Tom and is struggle are compelling, the episodic storyline is hit-or-miss and the supporting characters lack the dimension of the protagonist. As written, it merits a consider.

The first act wisely establishes Tom’s pre-pilgrimage life, showing him as somewhat lonely and bored, going through the motions until he gets the call that Daniel’s dead. Tom’s grief is palpable and well-written, and it clearly motivates his decision to continue Daniel’s pilgrimage. The flashbacks are a bit on the nose, but without them, Tom’s actions throughout the script would make little sense. Despite its deliberate (some might say tedious) pace, this first act does a very effective job of setting up a pretty tough conflict: Tom’s desire to get to know his dead son better.

The ambling second act focuses entirely on the journey, which is where the story hits the occasional stumbling block. The second act has many effective passages (notably Tom’s visceral experience swimming after Daniel’s backpack and the theft in Burgos), but some sequences either fall flat or don’t have much purpose in terms of reinforcing characters or underscoring the theme (like the brief stay at El Ramon’s mansion). However, what the writer does well throughout these hit-or-miss vignettes is build Tom’s distaste for his traveling companions, which culminates in his drunken outburst against Jack.

This leads to Tom’s third-act realization that he may not want these people around, but he does need them, which builds to a satisfying resolution as Tom finally figures out what Daniel wanted out of life — the freedom to experience people and places unencumbered. The writer also handles the religious aspects of the pilgrimage reverently, but the material never gets preachy. Tom, the doubtful lapsed Catholic, is as awed by the cathedral and mass as any of the others. The final decision to continue traveling the world as Daniel did is not entirely believable, but neither is it inconceivable.

Despite his relative lack of dialogue, Tom is an exceptionally strong character. Much of this comes from giving the audience all the necessary information about Tom and Daniel in order to understand his struggle throughout the script. As an annoyingly on-the-nose line of dialogue puts it, “You don’t choose a life. You live one.” Throughout the script, Tom comes to realize why Daniel made the decisions he did, and why he himself might have been missing out on a richer, more interesting life. He’s a poignant, well-observed character.

The supporting characters, on the other hand, do not have the same level of depth or poignancy. Overall, the three characters who accompany Tom throughout most of his journey — Sarah, Jost, and Jack — have outsized personalities that attempt to make up for the disappointing, cliché-ridden quirks they’re assigned. Sarah is an angry, bitchy abuse survivor. Jost is a dope-smoking, pill-popping party-seeker from Amsterdam. Jack is a drunken Irish writer. Tom — and, to some extent, the writer — judges these characters harshly, but even when he gains some grudging respect for them, nuances never show through. The only moment of real honesty among these three characters is in Sarah’s heartfelt description of the emotional toll her abortion took. More moments like this could have greatly enhanced all three of these characters.

Still, this is a script that will live or die on Tom and Tom alone. Casting an excellent actor in the role will ensure success in spite of the script’s flaws, though it’d also benefit from top-notch casting in the supporting roles.

Posted by D. B. Bates on November 7, 2009 11:31 PM  |   | Print-Friendly  | Professional Script Coverage

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