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On the Road

On the Road

Released 12 October 2012
Director Walter Salles

Garret Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, Steve Buscemi, Kirsten Dunst, Elisabeth Moss, Terence Howard, Alice Braga
Writer(s) Jose Rivera

Charles Gillibert, Nathanael Karmitz

France, United Kingdom, United States, Brazil
Running Time 128 minutes
Genre Drama, adventure
Rating 16

Beat down.

Admittedly, it’s a long time since I read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road but I definitely remember there being a lot more road involved than what I saw in Walter Salles’ new adaptation. Strangely (or perhaps not so strangely given the uniformly beautiful cast), the tale of two close friends searching their great country for truth, inspiration and transformative experiences, has finally reached the screen as a tale of two attractive ne’er do wells searching their great country for drugs and sex.

Sam Riley plays Sal Paradise (Kerouac’s stand in for himself), a struggling writer living in New York. When he meets the enigmatic Dean Moriarty (based on Kerouac’s friend Neal Cassady and played by Garrett Hedlund), Sal is entranced by his carefree attitude to life. The pair bond over jazz music and drug use and form a deep friendship that will last several years as the pair travel back and forth across the country with Moriarty’s young bride Marylou in tow (Kristen Stewart).

Jose Rivera’s screenplay is deeply problematic; it removes the spirituality from both the narrative and its characters and replaces it with empty hedonism. In this light, Dean is not a counter-cultural free spirit but a feckless, unfeeling philanderer and Sal’s dedication to him akin to that of a not particularly bright kid egging on the bully in a school playground. This unfavourable characterisation not only distances us from the central characters but also muddies the political waters of the piece. The Beat Generation were at the heart of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement but here Dean and Sal’s relationship with minorities and women seem exploitative rather than inclusive. The women here may be sexually free for these men to enjoy but they are still trapped in some way or another. Particularly jarring is Sal’s brief affair with a poor, beautiful woman who earns her money picking cotton. It’s hard to see Sal and Dean as free-wheeling, progressive people.

Salles’ classical direction is also a mis-step, having neither the kineticism or imagination that marked the output of the Beat generation. A small role for Viggo Mortenson as the mercurial Old Bull Lee not withstanding, On the Road feels safe, pretty and ultimately empty - a formulaic pop song instead of a vibrant jazz improvisation.

- Linda O’Brien