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USA 2012
Directed by
Walter Salles
124 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Andrew Lee
4 stars

On The Road

Synopsis: Jack Kerouac’s famous novel makes its big screen debut.

I’m not a big fan of the novel On The Road, but that’s not to say I don’t like Kerouac. For me, Big Sur is his masterpiece, a deconstruction of his myth and himself, as he chronicles the mental breakdown that hits him following the fame that his "voice of a generation" novel brought him. Something that always bothered me about his more famous novel is the way he glosses over much of what I considered to be the disturbing or destructive behaviour of Dean Moriarty. Kerouc’s idol (the real life Neal Cassady) is a force of nature, but he’s also a bit of an arsehole. And Sal’s hero-worship of him is annoying. It’s been at least a decade since I read either novel though, so I’m just left with the impressions that remain in my mind. And it’s those memories that make my love for Salles’ adaptation so strong.

The main pleasure of On The Road, a novel so famously written as a stream-of-consciousness outpouring onto a single roll of paper, is the language. Kerouac wrote in such a way that reading itself was the joy of the book. The adventures of Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise, Kerouac’s alter-ego, were picaresque, but the language was what took you to another place entirely. So how do you adapt a book to the screen, where the bulk of your words vanish and all you are left with is the skeletal plot of two guys cruising around America? In this case, you reinvent. This isn’t an adaptation so much as a running commentary, the flipside to the mythologising of those famous few years in Beat history. If Kerouac romanticised his friend, Walter Salles takes a far more surgical eye to the figure of Dean Moriarty. Hedonism has its cost, and while Moriarty dodges and weaves for the most part, the human wreckage he leaves behind is a potent reminder of what that kind of lifestyle can do to people.

Key to this depiction is his choice of actors. Garrett Hedlund as Dean and Sam Riley as Sal are perfectly cast, with raw energy colliding with quiet adoration in a perfect on-screen chemistry. Almost the entire cast is well chosen, with only an appearance by Steve Buscemi breaking the spell, not because he isn’t great, but because he’s Steve Buscemi. Viggo Mortensen as William Burrows (here called Bull Lee) manages to avoid this fate, but only because the role he plays is so outsized and crazy. But I have to single out Garrett Hedlund. Seriously, after Tron Legacy who knew he was capable of something like this. I didn’t even realise it was him until the credits rolled. Kristen Stewart and Kirsten Dunst both make significant contributions as Dean's playthings in those unquestioningly patriarchal times whilst Tom Sturridge has a small role as Allen Ginsberg.

Walter Salles and his screenwriter, Jose Rivera, have succeeded not just in translating a well-loved novel to the screen, they’ve also produced a subtle critical examination of those days and what they meant not just to a generation, but also to the people involved. Some was good, some was awful, and On The Road doesn’t shy away from both celebrating and criticising. For someone who prefers the pained introspection of Big Sur to the wide-eyed innocence of On The Road, this is a near perfect adaptation of one of the major works of modern American literature.




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