In Khalili Dastan’s The Way, Eli Jane plays Jane Arcs, an underground MMA fighter who retires to a life of domestic bliss with a boyfriend and their son, Jake (Kayden Elias). But then Jake becomes sick with a terminal illness. Tormented after his death, Jane rushes back to the world from which she came, to tragic results.
Jumping ahead 13 years later, Jane sits on Death Row. The brunt of Dastan’s film follows Jane’s final 24 hours, as she and Max (Kelcey Watson), a prison guard who loves her, face Jane’s impending doom with vastly different perspectives on what awaits her. It’s an idiosyncratic blend of prison drama, psychological horror and spiritual reckoning. Frankly, its disparate tones don’t blend into an entirely coherent whole. But thanks to strong performances and Dastan’s eye for style, the parts that work really work.
Early on, Max and his fellow guards discuss the ethics of lethal injection and what happens to a prisoner when the injection goes wrong. Supposedly, it feels like your entire body is on fire. Like the fires of hell. Naturally, Max can only see this through the lens of the love of his life burning from the inside out. It haunts him, so he devises outlandish escape plans. But will he follow through? Would he sacrifice everything to save Jane? Would she even want him to after 13 years spent meditating on her choices and actions? It’s a strong pitch, and the places to which Dastan takes Max’s angst over Jane’s execution are really interesting, particularly a late-in-the-game horror sequence that hits hard.
Jane and Watson’s performances prop up the film’s emotional through-line even though the full nature of their relationship is held in the story’s back pocket for much of the running time. It’s a strange narrative decision, as is the choice to tell much of the story in constant flashbacks rather than chronological order. It becomes difficult to track.
This problem is particularly notable in exploring Jane’s tutelage under Master Xin (Joan Wong), who teaches her to put away past trauma and better herself in a way that feels a bit too Orientalist for my taste, given that Xin doesn’t have much to do beyond speaking wise proverbs and performing kung-fu. The insinuation that Xin’s lessons might be imbuing Jane with spiritual powers also plays into the stereotypical Wise East Asian character type. Honestly, very little of the Xin arc feels necessary given the relative strength of the relationship bits between Jane and Max; it grates against the emotional reality of their situation and the big finale that works due to what’s appealing about these characters, not any type of supernatural twist.
Dastan has a few more stylistic tricks up his sleeve, though. The scenes in the prison yard during Jane’s early incarceration are brutal and feel like old-fashioned prison exploitation. So, too, is the big fight sequence when she makes the fateful, fatal choice that lands her in prison. For a little while, the film seems to be building up to a violent catharsis; for what it’s worth, the ending is decidedly more tranquil. The Way is ultimately about choosing peace over violence, and Dastan is keen enough to make violence look as awful as possible. It may be the easier path, but it isn’t the prettier one.
Despite its confusing narrative construction and some questionable choices with the Master Xin character, The Way is, at its core, a relationship drama about preparing yourself for the inevitable death of a loved one. How far would you go to stop it? Would stopping it even matter? Dastan uses the prison aesthetic to good effect, and the actors dig themselves into their roles in an engaging, if sometimes frustrating, film.