Jack Kerouac’s arguably most noteworthy work, ‘On The Road’, is a rambling quasi-autobiographical account of his early-20s life as a beatnik writer in search of …something. Inspiration, hard work, a sexual awakening – perhaps the American Dream, preceding Hunter S. Thompson by a good 20 years. That part’s never really clear—and perhaps that’s why this novel, one of the most acclaimed pieces of American literature of the 20th century, has often been regarded as unfilmable. This has now been proven wrong by director Walter Salles (‘The Motorcycle Diaries’, ‘Dark Water’).
As a film, On The Road pretty very well on the whole. It pares back the nitty-gritty details of Kerouac’s wanderlust experience – one that spans several tumultuous years – yet retains the soul of Kerouac’s work: the friendships formed between he and several other New York creatives, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs.
The loose, rolling storyline will probably frustrate viewers seeking a hardened core of narrative to cling to; the closest you’ll find are the relationships that drift in and out of main character Sal Paradise (Kerouac’s projected alter ego)’s life as he treks from New York, across to California and back again before eventually setting off south towards the sexy, dirty wilds of Mexico.
In the role of Sal Paradise is British actor Sam Riley (‘Control’, ‘Brighton Rock’). Riley’s captured the essence of Kerouac’s lost and sometimes lonesome persona, turning in a sharp performance. However, it’s the charismatic role of womanising vagabond and sometimes car-thief Dean Moriarty, played by Garrett Hedlund, who steals the show. Hedlund, who most recently appeared in ‘Tron Legacy’, is more than just a heartthrob—this cat can act. It’s during his casual relationship with Marylou (Kristen Steward) and later, Camile (Kirsten Dunst) that dark degrees are added to his character. This is all filtered through Sal’s eyes and articulate narration, adding their own curious angles.
Depressingly, it’s probably actress Kristen Steward’s exposed boobs that will likely be for what this production is most remembered. It’s not her fault – but in a cast littered with extremely talented actors and produced with lavish attention to post-WWII North America and Mexico, she is still the one making headlines. That said, even if her breasts aren’t anything to write home about, she puts in a good performance. Under the right direction and within the scopes of her interests (jaded and affected women, apparently), she does a fine job. In this case, it reminded me of her work in ‘The Runaways’ – a film that confirms her sometimes hidden abilities and range.
Like the source material, On The Road suffers from pace. There’s a certain drawl to the tale that sometimes drags – and at 137 minutes, it really needed trimming back. Of course, it’s hard to pick exactly what could’ve been afforded the snip. There’s a lot here – and much is done to establish the characters early, while the second act seems slow. The third, however, is a dense block of details and intersecting characters, with heavy plot development that simply couldn’t be cut for risk of losing the complexity.
I’m not going to blame Salles’ direction, Francis Ford Coppola’s executive production or even the screenplay that retains the almost lyrical flow of Kerouac’s writ. Those wordy exchanges between Sal and Dean are a delight to watch. Fault lies with the original work –it’s a meandering tale, where the beauty is in the triviality of life. I think that’s Salles’ take on Kerouac: he likes to linger in bars, walking us through drunken conversations, taking us through the deep southern states and into the whorehouses south of the border.
Some will find it dull—as prosaic as the source. But in translating that across to the screen, I’d call that an accomplishment in its own right. The final film holds true to the source material – but it’s just not a journey everyone’s going to want to take.