Film review: On the Road

by Hugh Lilly / 15 September, 2012
One of the great delights of the film is its landscapes, says Hugh Lilly.
On the Road


Just as it may prove to have been impossible for Baz Luhrmann to convey visually the feeling conjured up by the breathtaking final sentence of The Great Gatsby – “So we beat on, boats against the current …” – it must have seemed equally daunting for Brazilian director Walter Salles and screenwriter José Rivera to face adapting the mellifluous freewheeling prose of Jack Kerouac’s era-defining novel On the Road into something legible to most filmgoers. Salles, who depicted a more politically inclined improvised road-trip in The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), has here delivered a kinetic firecracker of a film, fuelled by equal parts sex (it’s more explicit than the book), drugs (Benzedrine, popped everywhere and at all hours, especially the wee small ones) and jazz, which seeps into the story from the first timid whine, early in the piece, of a plaintive clarinet.

The film-makers have taken Kerouac’s sometimes unwieldy run-on verbiage and formed from it characters who, as in most movies, develop in reaction to experience as the story unfolds. That’s not to say the novel’s exuberantly haphazard mood has been jettisoned – just that they’ve not delivered an avant-garde rendering of the text. This is a Hollywood movie through and through. (Such experimentation with the Beats is, in any case, ill-advised: witness Howl, the unwatchable triptych bio-doc of a few years ago.) English actor Sam Riley, who was perfectly cast as Ian Curtis in Anton Corbijn’s Control (2007), plays the narrator and Kerouac stand-in, Sal Paradise. Riley is good here, except when he tries to be too faithful, in line readings, to recordings of Kerouac’s tuneful patter. Ditto Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty, the novel’s “hero-saint”; the actor has the physicality but lacks the wry, knowing sensibility needed to fully embody the character. The pair are, however, surrounded by talent: Kristen Stewart as Marylou, Dean’s hedonistic girlfriend; Kirsten Dunst; Amy Adams; and Viggo Mortensen – plus a few great cameos.

At 137 minutes, the film runs a little long. Salles unwisely includes a coda in which Riley – whom we see taping together sheets of paper to form the now-mythical scroll – types out the opening lines and breathlessly recites the oft-quoted “mad ones” speech. (Salles cut the film by 15 minutes for the Toronto festival and the US market, probably in the hope of being given a lower MPAA rating.) One of the great delights of the film is its landscapes. Master cinematographer Eric Gautier takes, in brilliant 35mm clarity, picture-postcard images of snow-shrouded cars speeding across unworn highways; the rough-and-tumble NYC of the late 1940s, and the sickly heat of Tijuana. In the novel, Sal says he sees Nebraska towns “unreel with dreamlike rapidity”.

In capturing some of this sentiment, Gautier helps counteract Rivera’s script, which – perhaps a necessary concession, given the picture’s mainstream- audience aspirations – is sometimes heavy on voice-over. In Paris, Texas, Wim Wenders showed us the American West as he – an outsider – insightfully perceived it. Salles, by occasionally slowing the pace from a manic rush, pauses, roadside, to savour what Kerouac called “the fantastic end of America”.

Rating: 3/5

ON THE ROAD, directed by Walter Salles

Films are rated out of 5: 1 = abysmal; 5 = amazing

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