Sunday 14 October 2012


(Walter Salles, 2012) I've got issues with Jack Kerouac's "On The Road". I read it at 17, and even then it seemed like I was too old for such a book, too cynical to be impressed by these tales of beatnik debauchery and striving for artistic greatness. I appreciated much of the writing but many of the attitudes and characters seemed silly to me. In a way, watching Walter Salles' adaptation of the novel (which benefits from a fine script by Jóse Rivera) persuaded me that Salles has a similarly conflicted relationship with the novel. For as much as On The Road is a faithful, respectful attempt to get a literary classic right, it is also an insightful, acute criticism of its own source material. Rivera and Salles get right to the heart of the materials preoccupations with a first act filled with jazz, drinking, drugs, lots of sex, Kerouac proxy Sal Valentine (Sam Riley) scribbling away feverishly in a notebook, and much conversation about creativity and freedom. Salles finds just the right idiom for it all; his mainly handheld camera, quick editing and a real attention to the textures of life in 1940s America all giving it an immediacy and intimacy, while the lovely photography courtesy of Eric Gautier ensures it carries an elegiac, poetic quality from the start. That allows for a deeper examination of the novel; specifically of its view and treatment of women. Every male freedom in On The Road is balanced by female pain, and Salles ensures that his camera catches every such instance. Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) leaves a trail of crushed and scorned women in his wake, swapping them like shirts, abandoning them on street corners and in apartments with his infant children, always seeking the next thrill with his buddies. Strong casting helps here. Kirsten Dunst and Kristen Stewart each give their role a charge of intelligence, disappointment and bitter heartbreak as two of Dean's wives, while Elizabeth Moss has one furious rant directed at Dean and one of his friends. Only Alice Braga - as an itinerant labourer briefly involved with Sal - and Amy Adams seem content in their lives, surrounded by children and her heroin addict husband (Viggo Mortenson, having a great time as Old Bull Lee, Kerouac's version of William Burroughs), who is the first one of the group who questions Dean's motives and saintliness. Hedlund is terrific as Dean. Just charismatic and interesting enough that his hold over so many people is believable, but with an edge of vulnerability and insecurity that makes him seem intensely human. Riley has less to do as Sal, but he gets across the watchfulness of a writer well, and the intensity of their relationship carries the film. The beauty of the photography and of the many desert landscapes, sunsets and mountain views certainly don't hurt, and even act as a partial explanation for the attraction of life on the road in this vanished America. There is also a strain of acute longing here, the cloying self-regard often obvious in Kerouac's writing transformed into something far more melancholic and interesting here. These are men in search of fathers - this made more explicit by a small change to the first line of the novel, emphasising a connection between Sal and Dean - and burying themselves in experience, travel and excess. Another aspect altered from the novel is the explicit homosexuality here; Dean is conflicted about his relationship with Carlo, but his scenes with an older travelling companion (Steve Buscemi) suggest his crushing need for intimacy with a father-figure, and the homophobia present in many of the books asides is exchanged for the good-humoured amusement seen in Sal's face on a few occasions. The story is thin, of course, following these friends as they criss-cross the country from New York to California via Denver, but it accrues emotional power as it follows the roads they speed down, until one final betrayal, in a vividly-evoked Mexico, has a particular sting. As a beat film, this is outstanding, Salles finding the perfect rhythym and register for such a story, intent upon the quiet moments, the lost moments of thought and regret. And as a literary adaptation, it is uncommonly intelligent and piercing. In all, then, this is a massively surprising success.

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