Director: Walter Salles
Writer: Jose Rivera (screenplay), Jack Kerouac (novel)
Stars: Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Viggo Mortensen
Release date: October 12th, 2012
Distributor: IFC Films
Countries: USA, France, UK, Brazil, Canada
Running time: 137 minutes
Best part: Eric Gautier’s cinematography.
Worst part: Sam Riley’s subdued performance.
For any writer, the most daunting experience is sitting in front of the blank page, wishing for your greatest work to be expelled from your mind and onto the canvas. On The Road reminds us however that our characteristics and experiences are what inspire some of our most creative ideas and endeavours. Based on one of the most popular books of its time, the film adaptation is a cool and viscerally enjoyable ride. Taking a more traditional approach for a road trip story, the film takes the beautiful and poignant scenic route, slowing down long enough to enjoy the ride through America’s forgotten landscapes.
Author Jack Kerouac based the book on his own experiences in the time of the Beat generation of the late 1940s and early 50s. Representing Kerouac, Sal (Sam Riley) is struggling to let go of writer’s block. Coping with the sudden death of his father, Sal wanders lazily through New York City searching for ideas, before he is introduced to to womaniser and drug addict Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund). They instantly connect, becoming great friends while falling into the life of sex, drugs and smooth jazz music. Eager to learn about the heartland of America, they, along with several other colourful characters, travel across America in search of greater temptations and Sal’s next great story.
This once seemingly ‘unfilmable’ novel has been re-created as a touching, fun yet confronting character study. South American director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) has mixed an American road story with a taste for his home continent’s cinema. On the Road is an important discussion of freedom and liberty. Everyone in this time was free to taste, play and screw anyone and anything, letting go of personal and societal demons. We however are only introduced to one narrow side of this problematic time in American history. Salles’ discusses race, class, sexual orientation and femininity, without capturing the social and political attitudes of the time, and the consequences of questionable actions. Creating several vibrant drug trip sequences throughout the film, Salles is determined to immerse the viewer in the dirty yet delectable world he has re-created. Much like My Own Private Idaho and Into the Wild, what makes the large American setting whole are its inhabitants. On The Road is filled with a collection of strange characters, expressing their dreams and desires with the funky bunch of travellers. The acclaimed cast grows with every place Sal becomes a part of, capturing a truly engaging and unseen America. Character actors including Terence Howard, Steve Buscemi, Amy Adams, Alice Braga, Kirsten Dunst and Viggo Mortensen provide charismatic performances in small yet thematically important roles. Homo-eroticism and sex however are the most important interactions on this journey, as each friend subtly expresses their undying love for both each other and a seemingly lawless world.
“I really wish I could drink whiskey like a man. All these guys are like: “Hey! Do a shot!”” (Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge), On the Road).
Despite significant chemistry between Sal and his new friends, including charismatic performances from Hedlund and Kristen Stewart as nymphomaniac and lost soul Marylou, Sal’s desire for writing his next great novel never comes across as significant or even broken to begin with. His existential troubles should have been focused on to a much greater extent, instead defining his character as a quiet and emotionless outsider. Riley’s lack of personality in the role also hinders the emotional impact needed for the contemplative character, failing to establish any concerns with the purity of the blank page. The dialogue however paints a picture of every city coming up on their map. While each character’s love for art and expression is told with distinct discourses and languages, succinctly capturing a time of freedom and rebellion in post-WWII USA. This road trip is a poetic and contemplative experience. Despite its noticeably slow pace, every city and hidden place in America is beautifully photographed. Authentically capturing every desert, mountainous and industrial area throughout the country, Sal’s pallet is provided more than many delectable ideas to create the perfect story. Tracking shots of every hazardous location place the viewer in each bump and fork in the road on their kaleidoscopic journey. Not only does Salles capture each distinct and dirty setting of the Beat generation, but the radiant Jazz and Soul score, along with many expressive and sweaty dance sequences, create a toe-tapping energy for every twist and turn on their grand adventure.
Certainly, despite Salles’ best efforts, On the Road fails to live up to Kerouac’s sterling legend. The slow pacing and jarring tonal shifts show off things that were lost in the translation. However, thanks to the performances, it still stands up on its own.