Film Review – On The Road
Young men in love with life, hard drinking and drugging, sexing it up with as many people as possible, always being restless, going at a pace as quick as they bodies will physically allow: that’s what the Beats were about. Getting as much from life as you can and simultaneously examining it along the way—a whole generation of people in the calm following World War II were trying to find themselves. This also invited a good deal of selfishness as well. While fun, there was also sadness. For them and for countless others after, the writing of Jack Kerouac became holy scripture. Previously thought unfilmable, Kerouac’s most famous book, On The Road, has become a new film, and it is much better than you would expect.
Director Walter Salles seems to have a real handle on what makes this tale work. His most notable credit is The Motorcycle Diaries, showing that he has a fondness for road movies featuring notable real life characters. This being such a seminal work, virtually the granddaddy of all road stories, it’s fitting that it is so well crafted. It’s true that books and movies are different mediums. Usually it gets tiresome hearing comparisons between a movie and its written source. But in this case, Kerouac and his book and the film are inseparable. You simply can’t talk about one without the other. A whole generation cited this novel frequently, inspiring a wave of poetry, writing, art, and an aesthetic that defined them.
Kerouac said in interviews that he was most like his main character, Sal Paradise (ably played here by Sam Riley). He is the quiet but engaged observer who is constantly scribbling in his notebook or on whatever scrap of paper he can find. At one point, he needs to write so badly that he scratches at the margins of a newspaper with the barest stub of a pencil. He’s got a great novel in him, but he feels he needs experiences to write about. Sal is drawn to people that excite him: “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” In his world, no one burns more brightly than his pal Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund of Tron: Legacy fame). Sal spends most of his multi-year road trip trailing behind the charismatic Dean, the kind of young man who can charm any woman into bed while staying up for days on end, drunk on both whiskey and pills. Sal says early on that he knows Dean may be conning him as much as he is befriending him, but he clearly is attracted to the charismatic fellow. Sal isn’t an unquestioning acolyte, but he does follow. Along with various characters that come and go throughout their hitchhiking travels, they smoke endless cigarettes, steal cars, share women, travel across the U.S. several times and attempt to find meaning.
Most of the characters in the story have a real life parallel. While Sal is clearly the author himself, Dean is a stand-in for beat generation icon Neal Cassady. Homosexual subtext was always rumored in real life, which is more explicit in the screen version. Their friend Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge) is a double for the real life Allen Ginsberg, who was even more explicitly gay. Viggo Mortenson appears as Old Bull Lee, the William S. Burroughs character; Amy Adams plays his eccentric wife. Terence Howard plays a Charlie Parker type musician, and Steve Buscemi makes a cameo, as well.
One of the strengths of the film is in its handling of Dean’s two main loves. Much has been made in the press of Kristen Stewart being nude in this film. (Yes, Bella gets naked and she looks great. Now get over it, they’re just boobs. The media ends up diminishing her contribution to the film by reducing her to famous-chick-gets-naked status). Stewart plays Marylou, Dean’s first wife and free love feeling party girl. She’s very much the female equivalent of Dean. She loves to move as fast as he does, drink and dance like he does, and deal with the world on her terms. But eventually even she desires a more rooted existence. She wants to settle down, but at least she knows that Dean is not the guy for that. Her time with him will be brief, and she’s fine with that.
Meanwhile, Dean’s relationship with his second wife, played by Kirsten Dunst, shows some of the unromantic sadness that seems generally forgotten when the romantic picture of the Beat Generation is painted. Dean and Sal want to go out drinking and partying all night. Well guess what, someone has to watch their kid. Guess who? And his fidelity to her is almost non-existent. Everyone in his world loves Dean, but he’s a user. Sal knows this, his wives know this, and sometimes even Dean sees it in himself. That tension of selfishness versus the desire to rebel against the norms is how the film version distinguishes itself.
Jack Kerouac’s On The Road has been both romanticized and criticized over the years. The Beats can be seen as a precursor to the hippies of the sixties, minus the social conscience. But the work has been very meaningful to a lot of people over the years. And this thoughtful new film version shows it still has some relevance left in it.
Also, be sure to check out our interview with director Walter Salles.