That’s probably for the best – not because Walter Salles’ scuzzy, downbeat take on Jack Kerouac’s seminal work is a disaster, but because it’s a better film than the book’s mythologised status really warrants.
Stripped of decades of print-the-legend-style reverie about its creation and its seismic impact on American culture, On the Road’s jazzy, free-form prose style, transient characters and rose-tinted yearning for a frontier existence that had already long since passed, makes it both a curiously dated read today as well as an invigorating snapshot of post-war America as seen through the eyes of a group of youngish men who fancied themselves as societal outlaws and successfully sought to romanticise their own place within this creepingly conservative culture.
What’s immediately admirable about this film version is that it makes an honest effort to present these aspects of the book without the baggage that comes from the Beat culture stereotype of finger-popping hepcats hanging out at City Lights book shop, stroking their bearded chins while contemplating jazz. Even as it casts major movie stars in minor roles (Viggo Mortensen as the William Burroughs influenced Bull Lee; Amy Adams as his crazy wife) it doesn’t feel like a film burdened by celebrity cameos or actors desperately hoping that some of the cool-by-association lustre the book still holds for many will rub off on them.
Instead Salles works hard to keep the action of Kerouac’s semi-fictionalised memoir in the moment, using voiceover from the book to enhance rather than telegraph the drama and scraping away some of the romantic sheen that has attached itself to the characters over the years. By necessity that means Salles – working from a script by Jose Rivera, his collaborator on the similarly tricky-to-adapt Che Guevara memoir, The Motorcycle Diaries – has retained the episodic nature of the book rather than whipping it into some kind of driving narrative (no pun intended).
Thus the film opens in much the same way as the novel, with Kerouac’s alter ego Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) meeting On The Road’s livewire Neal Cassidy substitute Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund). What follows charts their fast-formed – and transformative – friendship over the next few years as they intermittently traverse the country together, Dean bouncing from woman to woman, and a smitten Sal frantically chronicling a transgressive existence he’s too self-conscious to embrace fully.
Here Salles translates some of the zingy, bebop energy of Kerouac’s prose into the film’s visual style by deploying a lot of roving hand-held camera work, smoke-filled close-ups and shadowy de-saturated cinematography. The effect gives the film a verité feel that prevents the book’s most memorable passages from feeling like a series of flashpoint moments leading to its creation. Indeed, even though Salles does eventually dramatise the fabled moment when Kerouac taped together rolls of paper so he could hammer out On The Road on his typewriter uninterrupted in a six-week burst of creativity, he’s canny enough to depict the writing process as one made up of copious note-taking, revisions and mistakes, rather than suggesting that the book arrived fully formed as a spontaneously composed first draft.
It helps too that the film has been well cast. Though Sam Riley’s patchy performances since nailing Ian Curtis in Control were beginning to suggest he might be a flash in the pan, he does strong work here as Sal, tapping into the insecurity of another artist who knows he doesn’t really have the chops to live the life he wants to write about. Even better is Garrettt Hedlund. The personality vacuum at the heart of Tron: Legacy is thoroughly engaging as Dean, credibly playing him as a larger-than-life figure who can charm the pants off anyone, but who can also be a fairly despicable, solipsistic human being whose bravado and burning desire to live a life free from responsibility requires him to repeatedly and wilfully hurt those he professes to love.
Indeed, it’s those marginalised women in his life (played by Kristen Stewart and Kirsten Dunst, both good) who ultimately expose just how much of a false idol for Sal he is. The film’s sympathies lie with the women, even if the screen time is devoted to the guys. And what of Sal and Dean’s relationship? Salles chooses not to make a big deal out of Sal’s closeted desire for the openly bisexual Dean, but his clearly conflicted feelings are more honestly explored than they were in Kerouac’s novel, further proving that, as a film, On the Road has plenty of mileage left in it.
Rating: * * * *
Directed by: Walter Salles
Starring: Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Viggo Mortensen