Directed by: Walter Salles.
Written by: Jose Rivera based on the book by Jack Kerouac.
Starring: Sam Riley (Sal Paradise), Garrett Hedlund (Dean Moriarty), Kristen Stewart (Marylou), Kirsten Dunst (Camille), Viggo Mortensen (Old Bull Lee), Tom Sturridge (Carlo Marx), Elisabeth Moss (Galatea Dunkel), Amy Adams (Jane), Steve Buscemi (Tall Thin Salesman), Terrence Howard (Walter), Alice Braga (Terry), Danny Morgan (Ed Dunkel), Coati Mundi (Slim Gaillard).
Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was published in 1957, and has since inspired several generations. The book somehow manages to be both romantic and cynical – romantic in hitting to the open road, either all by yourself or with your friends, and having “experiences” everywhere you go. Cynical in the way it looks at long term romantic love, and American society as a whole. You would think a book this popular and influential would have been made into a movie at some point in the last 55 years – but until Walter Salles decided to tackle it, no one else had. That’s probably because everyone thought that Kerouac’s style – a stream of consciousness – would be lost in any movie adaptation. And watching On the Road, you’d have to admit that the novel certainly loses something in translation. And yet, the movie is also endlessly fascinating. Kerouac’s novel that seemed so daring in 1957, when it hits screens in 2012, it seems nostalgic.
Sam Riley plays Sal Paradise, Kerouac’s alter-ego, who at the beginning of the movie hits the road from New York to Denver to see his friend Dean Moriarty (Garret Hedlund) in 1947. He doesn’t know Dean all that well, but there are others in Denver he does know, and Sal is tired of being a frustrated writer in his mother’s New York home, so decides to be a frustrated writer on the road. Over the next few years, he will crisscross the country – from New York to Denver to San Francisco back to New York to New Orleans all through the South, and eventually Mexico, often right alongside Dean and his young ex-wife Marylou (Kristen Stewart), and whoever else happens to want to go along for the ride. They drink, smoke and do drugs nearly constantly, will sleep with anything that moves -which are a specialty of Dean’s, who is an expert at making everyone fall in love with him. These two young men are trying very hard to fill the holes in them left by their absent fathers – Sal’s who died just prior to the beginning of the story, and Dean’s who was once a barber who became a hopeless wino on the streets of Denver, who is constantly searching in vain for. Eventually, we know, Sal will become the writer he wants to be – when he finally sits down and starts writing out everything that happens that we see in the movie – and Dean will eventually, well, Dean remains Dean – oblivious to the pain he causes everyone around him until it’s too late to undo that damage. In this version of On the Road anyway, it seems the basic journey is the one that has Sal go from enthralled with Dean to disillusion with him.
Riley’s Sal Paradise is mostly a passive presence in the film – always sitting back and observing everything, but hardly ever really getting involved. He loves Dean, may well be in love with Marylou, but he rarely vocalizes what exactly he is feeling to anyone. He is content to be along for the ride. The best performance in the movie belong to Garret Hedlund, who gets the best role in the movie as Dean, the ever charming, ever scheming Dean who does whatever he wants whenever he wants to do it. It’s easy to see why Sal is so drawn to Dean – he is the person that everyone loves, an expert at seducing women at the drop of a hat. Yet all these women – and a lot of men too – truly do fall in love with Dean. They know he will never love them back the way they love him, but they can’t stop themselves. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the sad face of Kristen Stewart, who is quite good as Marylou, who loves Dean when they are on the road together, but knows full well that when they reach wherever they’re going, he’ll be off again, leaving her along. Kristen Dunst plays Camille, Dean’s current wife, who sticks with him because of their children, but knows that even when he is with them, he is miserable. Even poet Carlo Marx (based on Allen Ginsberg), loves Dean, and wishes he would love him back. At least Carlo, unlike Marylou and Camille, is smart enough to stay mostly away from Dean. Hedlund does an excellent job of getting Dean’s lazy charm just about perfect.
The other two great performances are pretty much cameos – but Viggo Mortenson and Amy Adams as Old Bull Lee and his wife Jane, who of course are really William Burroughs and his wife. Mortenson is pretty much doing an impression of Burroughs, which is funny and tragic all at once, and Adams, normally so sweet and lovable, is mostly off her rocker – one time so high that she goes out to sweep a tree. You wish there was more of them in the movie, because they bring a weird energy to their scenes.
Director Walter Salles obviously loves road trip movies – his breakthrough was Central Station, about an old woman and a young boy searching for his father in Brazil, and he also directed The Motorcycle Diaries, about a young Che Guevara riding through South and Central America before he became a revolutionary. He and his cinematographer, Eric Gautier, capture the dusty charm and feeling of freedom of being on the road at the beginning of the movie – and also do a good job of making a moving car heading across the country feel claustrophobic by the end, when it is starting to lose its charm for Sal. The trip to Mexico, which is the last draw for Sal, feels like a fever dream, half seen, half remembered as things come crashing down around Sal and Dean.
This is probably the best version of On the Road that you could make – which probably points out why no one made it before now. It is a good film, but being forced to tell things in a linear fashion, full of “incidents” and cameos, and essentially ignoring the stretches of the book where Sal and Dean are apart, the film certainly loses something between the book and the film. And yet it remains a fascinating film – and a very good one at that.