Directed by: Walter Salles
The reason I refer to the film in Spanish is because this was uploaded to YouTube by some kind stranger with subtitles. I was persuaded to read ‘On the Road’ by a late friend of mine. It was only after he departed this world that I realized just how much gratitude I owed to the man. Though I read ‘On the Road’ too late for it to be a revolutionary force in my life (in my early twenties), the spirit, the exuberance, the congruent verve to live life with an unabashed sense of freedom, that message from the book was duly noted.
Walter Salles had a thankless job on his hands when he adapted Kerouac’s generation defining work. It was one of those ideas stuck in development hell. Coppola had the rights, but probably not the time, money or inspiration to put it out himself. Trying to capture the blistering pace of the novel, the breathless way it reads is nigh on impossible. Salles instead slows everything down, focusing on the homoerotic tension between Paradise and Moriarty and allows us to take in the breathless scenery of the America.
Prior to watching this film I was anxious about how Garrett Hedlund would handle to role of Dean Moriarty, the pseudonym for Kerouac’s hyperactive friend Neal Cassady. Capturing the essence of the legendary heartbeat and indeed personification of the beat generation is tricky given the man oozed unnatural levels of charisma. In theory he should be the kind of man that we all want to be, free, uninhibited and born with a burning desire to live. Cassady inspired legendary writers such as Hunter S. Thompson who emerged from the ashes of the beats. Doug Brinkley when talking about Thompson’s admiration for Cassady said “Hunter never really liked Jack Kerouac’s On the Road – he thought the writing was kind of sloppy and romantic and oversentimental – but he told me he thought Kerouac was a genius for two things: discovering Neal Cassady, whom Hunter thought was flat-out amazing, and using the literary construct of ‘looking for the lost dad I never had.’ Neal was never properly raised by a father. He didn’t even know whether his dad was alive or dead, and the notion of a young son who never had a dad, looking for his biological father, appealed to Hunter a great deal.”
Hedlund fits in with the piece; he is brooding and explodes into life when required, mostly in the sexual sense as a clichéd free spirit. Cassady was seen as an overwhelming physical force that never seems to sleep, yet Salles takes time to focus on the vulnerable, human side of his personality. The reluctant Father who seems half a man when he isn’t out on an adventure, there is a powerful scene where he leaves his struggling wife Camille to care for his baby in favour of another road trip with Sal.
The true revelation in ‘On the Road’ is the underrated Sam Riley, who sketchy accent aside, continues his theme of absolutely nailing introspective brooding young men; as he has done in the past when playing Ian Curtis in ‘Control’ and Pinkie Brown in ‘Brighton Rock’. Kerouac was a Mother’s boy, one of life’s constant observers who tended to float in the background and chronicle the vibrant moths that danced around the light.
It is tricky for the actresses to get a handle on their characters, given that they are so two dimensional in the source material. Kristen Stewart spends a lot of time flaunting around naked, feeling liberated and unburdened from her ‘Twilight’ pigeonhole, Kirsten Dunst is moody and teary and only the unnerving disappointingly brief performance of Amy Adams as William Burrough’s partner Joan Vollmer leaves an impression. All the women end up used and left behind like Galatea Dunkel, as the boys are off on their adventures.
The scenes at Old Bull Lee’s house could’ve been expanded upon because both Adams and Viggo Mortensen, who brings Burroughs to life, are magnetic. But like with most of the inspiring moments in the film, they aren’t somehow immortalized. This is arguably one of the most important books in American Literature yet the director is unable to tap into the source. In a film that spends a great deal of time on the inconsequential; a creepy Steve Buscemi, Terrence Howard talking jazz and Tom Sturridge’s portrayal of Carlo Marx (Ginsberg) stand out as memorable moments along the journey.
It often appears that Salles confuses the reality of Kerouac’s world, with the fictional characters of ‘On the Road’. Yes, Moriarty is Cassady and Paradise is Kerouac, but there is weariness about Paradise which calls more on our knowledge of the young Kerouac, the momma’s boy, the aspiring writer who taped together a roll of paper so he could type and type and type without pausing; unlike his imagining of a young Che in ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ Salles didn’t need to present the reality. The most important part of ‘On the Road’ is the essence.
Any road movie struggles to capture the moment. When you are behind the wheel, or the hitchhiking eager eyed passenger sitting in the backseat you aren’t thinking. Everything is happening around you. The in car conversation, the world outside the windows speeding by, taking in the sights for a few glimpse seconds before you speed past. ‘On the Road’ is a watchable adaptation, but not as good as any of us wanted it to be.