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Movie Reviews

On The Road



Reviewer: Craig Williams

Director: Walter Salles

Stars: Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams, Steve Buscemi

Released: 12th October 2012

An adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s beat-era classic On the Road has been a long time coming. The unenviable task of bringing Kerouac’s freewheeling and mostly plot-less novel to the screen fell to Walter Salles, director of The Motorcycle Diaries. Salles’ beautifully shot and remarkably faithful adaptation is, for the most part, a success.

On the Road opens at the end of the 1940s. Struggling writer Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) drifts aimlessly around the bars of Manhattan with poet (and Allen Ginsberg surrogate) Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge) waiting for inspiration to strike. His life is shaken up when he meets Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), a free-spirited livewire blazing through life on his instincts and insatiable appetite for booze, sex and jazz. Dean is living in a rundown apartment with his new 16-year old wife Marylou (Kristen Stewart) but seems to have numerous girlfriends scattered across the country. Sal is captivated by Dean and leaves New York for a life spent intermittently travelling across America seeking answers to the indefinable questions of life with a view to writing a book.

Structurally, On the Road is essentially a series of short disjointed road movies; scenes from places along the various journeys taken in the film. Its episodic nature, coupled with its length (137 minutes), means that the pace can occasionally slacken, only to pick up again whenever an interesting character crops up along the way; and luckily there are many. From Viggo Mortensen’s eccentric William Burroughs surrogate to Steve Buscemi’s leery loner, there is plenty to enjoy in the myriad of cameos. Indeed, the performances as a whole are very good. While Riley, Dunst and Stewart have convinced in previous roles, it is Hedlund, so wooden in Tron: Legacy, who surprises here with a committed performance that captures both Dean’s magnetic charisma and frayed vulnerability.

After a muted reaction to the film in Cannes earlier this year, many accused it of being too self-congratulatory. While there may be a number of scenes revelling in the hedonism of its characters, we never forget that we are looking at lost and immature young men reacting to a post-war malaise by clumsily seizing their newfound freedom. On the Road is much more that a catalogue of debauchery justified by sporadic literary and philosophical pretensions  it’s a film that shows men struggling to understand the limits and consequences of their own freedom. The film never fails to show the trail of destruction which Dean’s affairs leave behind or the fragile masculinity of men abandoned by their fathers. It shows that there’s nothing more life-affirming than listening to music and drinking with friends, but it also understands that there’s more to life than that, even if the characters don’t.

This more balanced approach results in a sense of melancholy which runs through the film. While the beautifully cerebral shots of the landscape may detract from the wild energy of other scenes, they widen the film’s gaze and offer thoughtful counterpoints to the jovial scenes of lighthearted debauchery.

At its core, On the Road is a film about growing up and understanding one’s own experiences. We gradually see Sal’s hero-worshiping of Dean dissipate as responsibility takes hold and he sees that Dean is going nowhere. A faithful and intelligent adaptation, Salles has opted for a considered and pensive approach to the hedonistic drive of the novel and shows that there’s more to real life than there is to life on the road.


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