Movie Review: “On The Road” – High Octane Trippin’

Written by Matthew da Silva September 13, 2012

Racing through the late 40’s and early 50’s at a drug fuelled pace, Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road” introduced the literary world to a new style of prose defined by its spontaneous, stream-of-consciousness narrative as well as the members that would go on to define the “beat generation”. No stranger to the road movie, director Walter Salles attempts to transpose Kerouac’s prose to the big screen, faced with the daunting task of creating a film that does the original work justice.

No Stops Allowed

“On The Road” follows Sal, a young New York writer who is struggling to find inspiration for his work. Things begin to change when Sal is introduced to Dean, a young, impulsive man who is unemployed, yet  seemingly has no struggle in getting by as a result of his eccentric attitude towards life. Sal, intrigued by this larger-than-life mystic, takes a liking to Dean, and they soon begin their journey across America, searching for life around every curve of the American landscape.

Salles’ quick visual and narrative cuts keep up with Kerouac’s spontaneous prose, mirroring the Benzedrine fueled pace of the events that occur in the novel. Interspersed with the high octane scenes revolving around Sal and Dean are shots of the landscapes that they drive by, slowing down only for a few seconds to admire the beauty of their surroundings before reverting back to their willingness to experience all that their American Dream has to offer and creating a version of it that is at once their own.

Dean In The Spotlight

I had never seen a film with Garrett Hedlund before, but his portrayal of Dean in Salles’ film definitely puts him in contention for the best up and coming young actor. While Dean is generally eccentric and full of life, there is an often unseen fragile side of him that was brought on by an alcoholic father and a troubled upbringing. Hedlund’s ability to seamlessly transition between these two sides in quieter moments with his pal Sal was remarkable, always maintaining a positive demeanor and a naïve hope for the good of others when discussing his darkest moments.

Sharing the lead spot with Hedlund, Sam Riley’s role as Sal was overshadowed by Dean’s unfaltering energy. While it was nearly impossible for Sal to keep up with Dean’s antics, the novel at least offered a competitive drive between the two protagonists, where their personalities complimented each other to form a unison that pushed their adventures to the edge. Their relationship in the film was more akin to a pug in a greyhound race, where Sal would be at Dean’s level of energy for a few moments before Dean bolted ahead.

Puddle Depth

Rounding out the rest of the cast were some strong performances by big name actors like Viggo Mortensen and Kristen Stewart, who offered strong performances yet never added any depth when it came to human connection. Rather than people, they were solely bizarre characters that Sal and Dean encountered, even though it was evident that these characters had met each other before. The strongest connection came in the form of Carlo Marx, a young poet who was intimately involved with Dean throughout the film, yet the level of interconnectedness between the two, as well as the rest of Sal and Dean’s friends, is ultimately shallow.

The whole of the film suffers the same fate, wading in the shallow waters of pretty faces, graphic sex scenes, and outstanding imagery that takes away from the grit and search for life in Kerouac’s novel. Where the novel utilizes sex and drugs as a side note to the characters search for deep human interaction, the film does the opposite, leaving the characters in altered states rather than forming altered relationships.

Keeping Up With The Beats

Even with its flaws, and maybe even because of them, the film will draw appeal from movie goers who have little to no previous knowledge of the beat movement and the many literary figures who encompassed it in the 50s and 60s. They will come to know of the beats as harbingers of the social movements that occurred in the late 60s, full of life and excitement that was eventually lost to the perma-fried, tie-dyed hippies.

My Rating: 6.5/10

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