Eli Jane in The Way (Photo: Alliance of Light)

★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Dastan Khalili
STARS Eli Jane, Kelcey Watson

With apologies to Neil Young, the term “the needle and the damage done” takes on a different meaning in the independent feature The Way.

Written and directed by Dastan Khalili, the film stars Eli Jane as Jane Arcs, a woman who’s been sitting on Death Row for the past 13 years. As her execution day arrives, the four guards at her facility discuss the morality of killing someone via lethal injection, with one stating that he heard it’s like having fire move through one’s veins and another dismissing the whole subject because it’s God’s will — and God’s sense of justice — that this eye-for-an-eye execution take place.

Through ample flashbacks, Jane is shown to be an underground street fighter, a ferocious person who, like Robert Mitchum’s Preacher Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter, has two words tattooed on her knuckles. Rather than “LOVE” and “HATE,” it’s “KILL” and “SHOT,” which combined spells out her nickname in this illegal arena.

In other flashbacks, Jane is shown after being rehabilitated by the love of a good man, Ben Jorden (Kelcey Watson), and the birth of a son she adores, Jake (Kayden Elias). But when a disease claims Jake, Jane enters a berserker rage and immediately places herself back in the fight zone, where she ends up murdering her opponent. That was 13 years ago, and now she’s about to pay for her crime.

In yet more flashbacks, Jane is shown earlier in her prison stint, where she began as the same violent and hate-filled person as on the outside before eventually taking instruction from a fellow inmate, the qi gong practitioner Master Xin (Joan Wong), and morphing into a woman at peace with her destiny. Or so it seems.

Kelcey Watson in The Way (Photo: Alliance of Light)

The Way goes for intriguing ambiguity that instead plays too often like impenetrable obscurity. The flashbacks — not unleashed in any sort of chronological order — come at such a fast and furious clip that it’s often difficult to allow our emotions to take a foothold in everything that’s being presented. The character of Ben Jorden, Jane’s lover and the father of his child, is played by the same actor who will later play Max Stone, a prison guard who falls for her. It’s silly if these two are meant to be the same person and unnecessary if they’re meant to be different people (even the masterful David Lynch occasionally got into trouble when employing this gimmick).

There’s a potentially supernatural element that eventually enters the story, a needless distraction from the heavy subjects being tackled. Indeed, speaking of heavy subjects, it’s impossible to describe the last act of the picture without ample spoilers, but suffice to say that it ties back into that opening with the guards discussing the needle. Unless The Way is ultimately meant to be an anti-capital punishment screed at all costs, it makes no sense that a certain understanding character would be the one made to endure particular agonies when there’s another character who would have benefitted more from the unsightly experience.

There’s no denying the sincerity behind The Way, but the movie gets lost in its own fog.

(The Way will open theatrically in limited release on October 1 and then be available on DVD, digital, and VOD.)

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