Adapting Jack Kerouac’s On The Road for the big screen has been a long time coming, and it was only a matter of whom would possess the courage—and perhaps a dash of martyrdom—to do so. Finally, Walter Salles has taken a shot at the long-deemed-unfilmable novel, and as would have been the case regardless the director, the film is going to garner a wide array of reactions. To Kerouac fans: proceed with caution. The authenticity of the film’s Beat flavor is mild at best. To everyone else: don’t look too deep, and the sexy surface will entertain marvelously for a couple of hours.
Salles’ film spins all over the place, but since there’s no specific plot, it never spins out of control. Like the book, it just keeps rambling in a forward direction, flying back and forth across the country in following the adventures of Sal Paradise, Kerouac’s semi-autobiographical protagonist played by British up-and-comer Sam Riley. It’s full of drug-fueled nights that usually end in gritty sex, pulsing jazz to keep pace with the amphetamines, and impetuous conversation brooding over what it means to be alive. And that’s about the extent of the narrative.
Absent of any real plot, the film hinges on its character development. When Sal first leaves New York to live on the road with seductive ringleader Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) and his 16-year-old bride Marylou (Kristen Stewart), the characters hardly know themselves. But their escapades are mirrors for their inner journeys, and like diamonds being polished, their characters slowly become more defined. It’s not difficult to psychoanalyze from the get-go, but it’s still fun to watch them figure out themselves and each other, and after riding around in the car with them for two hours, the depth of understanding that is reached is satisfying.
With so much depending on character development, the quality of On the Road is left almost entirely up to the actors. This is especially true given Salles’ approach to the film. He didn’t directly translate the novel onto the screen, probable because it would have been impossible to include all of the texts’ locations, characters and rambling poetry without serializing it into several films. But nor did he take full artistic hold and reinvent it as his own (think Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet). Rather, Salles chose a middle ground, making it neither fully his nor fully Kerouac’s, and leaving the real ownership of the film to the actors.
In this regard, On the Road succeeds. Although Riley is a solid front man, Hedlund is really the star. He plays a boyish Dean so charmingly that his ability to intoxicate anyone he chooses is believable. And despite a immaturity that always comes at the expense of others, his radiance makes his ultimate demise painful to watch. Stewart plays her usual doleful self, but she has moments where she takes her glumness to a level of true mourning and pulls it off. Perhaps the most convincing performance of the whole film, however, is Tom Sturridge’s Carlo Marx, the surrogate for real-life Allen Ginsberg. If there’s anyone who seems truly possessed by the artistic and emotional demons that defined many a Beatnik, it’s him.
As Salles’ second attempt at developing a relationship between two male characters on the road, it’s a strong step forward from his first (2004’s The Motorcycle Diaries). He seems to be establishing himself as an inward-focused director who has a knack for picking locations as beautiful as they are fitting to the feel of the story. Even if the work as a whole is not totally true to the book, there’s no denying that it successfully evokes the freedom of a life of travel. The scenes where the camera is pointed straight out the windshield at nothing but open land and the white line in the middle of the road are so mind clearing and artful that it’s difficult not to wish you were in the backseat yourself.
Director: Walter Salles
Writer: José Rivera
Starring: Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart
Release Date: Dec. 21, 2012