Off the page and onto the screen

Image: Lionsgate

On The Road

Dir. Walter Salles


Jack Kerouac’s semi-autobiographical story about existence on the road and the pursuit of the life-less-ordinary is one of a collection of books given the dubious honour of being labelled ‘unfilmable’.  That alone may fill some with trepidation as to whether this (or any) film adaptation would prove to be monotonous and low on plot. Yet while this version runs slightly longer than it needs to, it manages nevertheless to create and maintain a compelling and fulfilling narrative.

The story begins in the jazz clubs and pot-filled apartments of New York, as aspiring writer Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) meets the free-spirited, impulsive womaniser Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund). They embark on a series of road trips across America which envelope their lives and re-shape their identities, through a close sense of friendship and brotherhood. While travelling towards open horizons, they discover a way of life that includes copious amounts of sex, drugs and alcohol; each of which gets plenty of screen time. Linking the many characters are the women in Moriarty’s life, which include Marylou, a teenage lover who accompanies them for much of the journey (Kristen Stewart), and the trusting romantic Camille (Kirsten Dunst) with whom Moriarty fathers a child.

The film effectively recreates late-1940s America and the mood felt by the so-called Beat Generation, of which Kerouac was part. Director Walter Salles utilises similar handheld camerawork to his previous film The Motorcycle Diaries, in order to develop a connection with even the most fleeting of characters. A smooth, upbeat jazz soundtrack along with quick editing provides a vibe and energy invaluable in forming the ever-changing world of Paradise and Moriarty.

One of the greatest pleasures of On the Road is also its downfall. There are dozens of characters that form part of the journey, many of whom are only on-screen for a matter of seconds. Viggo Mortensen, for instance, gives a delightful cameo but never occupies centre stage. This troupe of many faces gives the film an unsettled tone, but one that nevertheless makes us focus more on the characters that stick around. Many will want to talk about Kristen Stewart, whose mature, convincing performance will do much to help her progress beyond her Twilight image, but the film’s real star is Garrett Hedlund. His Moriarty is wild, vulnerable, endearing and insufferable in equal measure, and the unpredictable nature of his character provides much of the film’s intrigue.

As a quest for meaning, On the Road ultimately rings hollow. That which entices Paradise on to the road to begin with (being “mad to live” – in other words, aimless and hedonistic) proves to be tiresome, even for him, by the end credits. This is still a fine road movie, however, full of warmth and memorable characters. Having successfully condensed four years of travel into two hours of rich memory and a good deal of heart, On the Road might have proven not be so unfilmable after all.

With thanks to Dundee Contemporary Arts


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