On The Road
American ‘beat’ writer Jack Kerouac’s iconic work On The Road has long been considered one of those problematic tales in terms of adaptation for the big screen. Much of the beauty, the tone of the book, is to be found in the voluminous richness of the prose; poetic, almost stream-of-consciousness description that flows like a literary fountain off of each page and into the next. Not something easily achieved either purely visually or via narration or in even 137mins of runtime. So, to say that director Walter Salles has given it a pretty decent, if only partially successful attempt is to say he’s done more than many could have.
No stranger to big vistas, rolling landscapes or epic road journeys, Salles employs all the tricks – including the cinematographer, Eric Gautier – that he used on his 2004 road movie biopic The Motorcycle Diaries. As you can imagine the road dominates here. Countless American films also confirm it is full of big skies, loneliness, mystery, and seemingly endless cultural dialects. In terms of photography Salles flits between the raw feel of free roaming handheld – like the long handheld close-up follow-shot on Sal’s legs walking in the dust of a desert road – and the more formal feel of fixed frame for capturing landscapes.
The piece has been reasonably well cast with a fairly known ensemble. For all the noise I’ve heard about Garrett Hedlund’s turn as the film’s manic driving presence Dean Moriarty I find Sam Riley as (Jack Kerouac stand-in) Sal Paradise to give the richer performance with less to work from in terms of material. Kristen Stewart – check any Twilight feelings positive or negative at the door! – holds her own as young first wife and sometime lover Marylou, drawn to and aged by Dean’s super-hot flame. However, none of them can hold the screen when Kirsten Dunst is in play as Dean’s slowly embittering second wife Camille with whom he has two children. Lesser known British actor Tom Sturridge plays an equal measure creatively brilliant and petulant Carlo Marx (representing Allen Ginsberg) who has also been drawn into Dean’s psycho-sexual relational web. Another performance from the wide-ranging, star-studded cast of note is Viggo Mortensen playing enigmatic Southern mentor to Sal, Old Bull Lee (representing William S. Burroughs).
Like Dean the road is raw and unforgiving and full of possibility; shaping the film as much as it does the characters therein. But the film’s burden to trace good portions of Sal and Dean’s lengthy journeys means that the characterisation and relationship development end up a little thin. Indeed, if the characters in the book seem a shallow privileged lot – which they are but their context and contribution is much better expounded – then the film leaves them feeling that much more so and this will understandably put some viewers off. The film also suffers from periods of drag where it gets a little bogged down and repetitious, but not for too long. On The Road was always going to be an ambitious undertaking – Coppola has been trying to get a film adaptation made since he bought the film rights in 1979! – but Salles pulls it off creditably. I’d be surprised to see a better version (or any version for that matter) come out anytime soon.
Reviewed by: Jacob Powell