Aurally and visually matching the freedom and improvisational nature of the Beat Generation writers, Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) creates a faithful adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s classic novel On the Road, with its only major fault arising from its adherence to the plot, rather than simply respecting it.
Set over a number of years, On the Road begins in 1947 with Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) burying his father. Struggling to write and striving to experience life, Sal is taken by poet Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge) to meet Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), who answers the door naked, having been interrupted during sex with his teenage wife Marylou (Kristen Stewart). Sal is quickly taken by Dean’s wild and free spirit and begins to embrace more hedonistic activities, leading to three separate journeys through America and Mexico in search of meaningful answers.
Containing the raw directness that fuelled many of the Beat Generations’ writers, Salles’ adaptation is a story of loss in the search for meaning and self-realisation while its central characters come of age. Unlike the novel, however, the longing for belief and spirituality takes a back seat to the film’s exploration of “growing up”. Sal’s struggle to maturity contrasts with Dean’s childish take on life; one is unable to comprehend the limitations of complete freedom, while the other revels in it. Indeed, the final moments reflect the pair’s reactions to their travelling experiences.
Other than hints of disenchantment and rebellion against a post-World War II capitalist-based society, the film never states overtly Sal and Dean’s hope to find an America based on its fundamental ideals and populated with inherently good people. Instead, their journeys together symbolise a yearning for self-discovery, and a confirmation of male identity.
Sal initially views Dean as a guide to new experiences and possibilities due to his sheer energy and recklessness. Sal watches Dean, envious of his ability to break free of normalcy, before cautiously partaking himself. On the first trip, it is clear Sal can identify with Dean and involve himself in his life. The themes of masculinity and brotherhood are incredibly important in the film, with Sal drawn to the man from the West soon after the death of his father. Both men attempt to create an alternative family structure based on male friendship, and Sal defends his friend despite his selfish actions towards others, particularly women who yearn for domesticity.
This masculine-based family lends itself to the vibrant homoerotic and misogynistic overtones of Kerouac’s writing, with the film clearly presenting Dean’s licentiousness towards men and women. Unlike the novel, however, Sal is not presented as homophobic – incapable of seeing homosexuality as anything other than a fault – but is instead disgusted by sexual commoditisation; Dean’s illicit affair with Carlo Marx brings Sal sadness, but nothing more, while a scene involving prostitution clearly disturbs the central character. Sal is also warmer here to each female character, even if he allows and forgives Dean’s consideration of them as mere sexual objects.
Jack Kerouac’s novel is an explicitly literary tale, bound by form and author. It is exceptionally difficult for many to separate this adaptation from its source material. Even more so, newcomers will struggle with a classic four-act structure that is loose and episodic. The film’s experiential nature means there are peaks and troughs and, much like Gustavo Santaolalla’s score, its dramatic impact is a variable spasm. Salles and Jose Rivera’s decision to follow the novel’s plot in such a faithful manner – rather than its spirit – diminishes the viewer’s engagement with the film, but there is something incredibly satisfying about seeing so much of it represented on the screen.
Eric Gautier’s camerawork conveys an incredible sense of mobility signifying the symbolic act of travel. Gautier, somehow, harmonises separate movements and he beautifully captures the American and Mexican landscapes that provide the backdrop to the cross-country adventures. Just as impressive is Carlos Conti’s production design, with cars, clothes and interior locations authentic to the period.
Sam Riley gives a perceptive performance as Sal, taking soulful elements from his role in Control and infusing them into his Kerouac alter-ego; Hedlund, meanwhile, is scene-stealing as Moriarty – never as volatile as his literary counterpart, but just as confident. Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams and Elisabeth Moss are all strong in their understandably short appearances, while Steve Buscemi is utterly disturbing in his minute role. The most surprising turn, however, is Kristen Stewart as the promiscuous Marylou, providing an effective counterpoint to Riley’s contemplative protagonist. Playing a sexually dominant being, every word Stewart utters drips with unfulfilled tension.
An experiential story containing a sense of loss and sorrow as the larger truth proves elusive, Salles’ On the Road is a technically exquisite feature that aurally and visually matches the improvisational nature of the Beat Generation but struggles to exude its raw and energetic spirit.