Following the success of Walter Salles and Jose Rivera’s last collaboration, 2004 Guevara biopic The Motorcycle Diaries, the duo set about tackling Jack Kerouac’s apparently ‘unfilmable’, revered Beat Generation bible On the Road. Starring Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund and Kristen Stewart, as well as a plethora of recognisable supporting cameos, Salles’ elegantly-shot adaptation captures the beauty of the open road, yet fails to traverse its source material’s rambling and incredibly conceited methodology. Riley plays Kerouac’s fictional cipher Sal Paradise, a young writer living in post-war America, struggling to find inspiration.
That is, until our protagonist meets free-spirited Dean Moriarty (Hedlund) and his young wife Marylou (Stewart), a pair of carefree wanderers who Sal joins on an excessive excursion across America, working odd jobs and at times taking President Truman’s notion that America “must cut down on the cost of living” a little too seriously by thieving to help fund their promiscuous, drug-fuelled existence. Meeting an eclectic mix of characters along the way, Sal’s expedition across the land of opportunity is a sexual odyssey of inspiration and discovery, sound-tracked by a swinging jazz score.
Salles’ ability to recreate the lost veneration for the natural world through the purity of his camera’s gaze creates a vibrant and fascinating backdrop for Kerouac’s restless prose. Using a combination of handheld camerawork and frequent cutting, Salles has successfully imitated Kerouac’s distinctively spontaneous style and episodic approach. Yet, whilst technically commendable, the fact remains that this meandering and blithe dynamic fails to make for an entertaining drama. Truman Capote once described On the Road as “not writing – it’s just typing”, and sadly this element has transferred from page to screen, with Salles’ On the Road taking a far too literal approach in its job of adaptation.
Desperately in awe of its source material, Salles’ latest is something of a paradox. Even at an abridged 120 minutes, the film feels overly baggy – yet also nowhere near long enough to fulfil its desire of fashioning an almost verbatim visual compendium of the book. A beautifully presented, yet laborious voyage of drugs, sex and discovery, On the Road does little to titillate its audience, despite its abundance of clammy flesh and urgently delivered dialogue. The only really captivating character is Dean, yet even Hedlund’s assured performance fails to turn this character into anything other than a fascinating literary muse whose been set to self-destruct.
Whilst Eric Gautier’s sublime widescreen photography creates a lush canvas of crisp natural beauty that wonderfully captures the overwhelming serenity of the open highways, Salles’ On the Road fails to illustrate the spiritual message behind Kerouac’s sprawling text. Instead, it functions as a one-dimensional celebration of a modern literary classic, with neither the seductive pull nor emotional connection required to make it anything other a wistful glance back to a more alluring time.
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