Film Review | On the Road

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was a lifestyle manual that defined the Beat Generation. Can Walter Salles capture the spirit of this roving bohemian counter-culture in a two-hour film?

Sam Riley (back), Kirsten Stewart and Garrett Hedlund embark on a journey of self-discovery in this ambitious adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s Beat Generation classic.
Sam Riley (back), Kirsten Stewart and Garrett Hedlund embark on a journey of self-discovery in this ambitious adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s Beat Generation classic.

The Beats were the big American counter-culture movement before the hippies came along. This generation of disaffected artists and druggies with pretensions to spiritual enlightenment began to bore its way into the cultural consciousness post World War II, and in many ways lay the groundwork for the 60s sexual and political revolution (which to this day still gets better press).

And perhaps one of the most enduring distillations of the 'beatnik' lifestyle - as it would later be dubbed - came in the form of Jack Kerouac's heavily autobiographical novel, On the Road.

Written in a three-week frenzy on a single large scroll of typewriter paper (the Beats would take pride in these self-mythologising anecdotes), the novel, first published after extensive edits in 1957, tells the story of Sal Paradise (played by Sam Riley in Walter Salles's film adaptation), an aspiring writer who embarks on a road trip with the erratic Dean Moriarty (Tron's Garrett Hedlund) across the post-war US landscape.

Working their way through tons of Benzedrine - in Dean's case, tons of women too - the two have no real destination save for a vague pursuit of 'It', or moments of spiritual epiphany borne out of raw human experience.

Opening themselves up to the landscape and the smattering of poets, junkies and eccentrics that populate it, Dean and Sal also break hearts and have their hearts broken by the women whose lives they barge into: notably the aimless hanger-on Marylou (Kristen Stewart) and the just-slightly more level headed Camille (Kirsten Dunst).

Of course, their quest - driven as it is by an adolescent urge to satisfy pleasure and curiosity - can't last. But the pair certainly give it their best go.

Director Walter Salles (working from a screenplay by Jose Rivieria) was arguably an ideal contender to bring Kerouac's rambling, generation-defining narrative to the screen, given how he'd previously directed a similarly historically-tinged road trip feature: The Motorcycle Diaries (2004).

And in a lot of ways, he lives up to this hope, even if he remains understandably hamstrung by his source material.

The fact is that Kerouac's novel - being an episodic and often random trudge through late-40s America - is not that easy to shoehorn into a mainstream feature film format.

So what we get is a necessarily languid story that unfolds over a slow two-and-a-half hours - something of a paradox, given how Kerouac's novel set out to capture the blistering energy of the scene he formed part of.  But with a confident grasp of the period (aided by beautiful cinematography courtesy of Eric Gautier), a familiarity with the source material's internal philosophy and a very cooperative ensemble cast (Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, Steve Buscemi and Terrence Howard seem more than happy to step in for what are essentially glorified cameos), Salles and Riviera craft an adaptation that manages to transmit the deeper, melancholic layer hidden beneath Sal and Dean's hedonistic journey of self-discovery.

He also gets to question Kerouac's navel-gazing narrative.

The protagonists' treatment of the women who get caught up in their whirlwind, for example, is neither responsible nor considerate, and it lends a necessary edge to his treatment of a lifestyle that can all too easily fall into the trap of saccharine nostalgia.

Among these lost souls is the flighty and flirty Marylou, whose embodiment by misty-eyed Twilight starlet Stewart is surprisingly successful... but perhaps Marylou's bleary-eyed listlessness isn't difficult to pull off if that happens to be your default acting schtick already.

With perhaps just a little too much reverence, Salles creates a world that has gone by, and that arguably will never be again.

But this is why his wistful film pinches the heart. The America of today wouldn't be open to such a naïve quest... even if a desire for unhinged adventure remains lodged within most of us, and yearns to blossom.