On the Road
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 9th September 2012
Having premiered at Cannes, this eagerly anticipated adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s seminal Beat Generation novel comes with an R18 certificate and a starry young cast, who spend well over two hours boozing, drugging and shagging their way across 1940s America.
Sal Paradise (Kerouac’s mostly autobiographical protagonist) is a writer with tobacco-stained fingers and writers’ block. He meets the magnetic Dean Moriarty who “had spent a third of his time in the pool hall, a third in prison and a third in the library”, and is honoured to be drawn into Moriarty’s inner circle under the languid gaze of his jailbait wife, Marylou.
Even though they were relative unknowns when originally cast many years ago, core to the film’s reception will be how aficionados take to the personification of their literary heroes by Tron’s Garrett Hedlund (with his intense stare and charismatic gravelly voice) as Moriarty, Twilight‘s Kristen Stewart, and Sam Riley (whose talent was evident from the opening frames of his debut Control) as Paradise.
In the driving seat is Brazilian director Walter Salles whose proven success with the road movie genre (The Motorcycle Diaries) confirms him as the perfect person to bring this difficult novel/memoir to the screen. He has crafted a beautiful film, with its grainy, gritty, noisy aesthetic lit in golden hues to reflect the carefree days of freewheeling in search of inspiration and intellectual epiphany.
Challenged, however, by being so faithful to the source material, the action suffers slightly so that the film feels a bit drawn out, lacking a prominent narrative arc. Based as it is on a (portion of a) life story, there are no murders, explosions or plot-twists, and though the driving and drug-taking and sexual shenanigans and riffing of poetry is diverting and impressive at first, it does begin to wear a little thin.
The performances are strong, and Hedlund (regardless of his tendency to answer the door naked) is a genuine revelation. There are even heavy-hitters in support – Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst and some familiar faces from Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire pop up to put their old-fashioned visages to good use. Notable is newcomer and young Brit Tom Sturridge who makes his debut as poet Carlo Marx, styled appropriately like the real-life Allen Ginsburg his character represents.
It’s possible that those who don’t harbour an attachment to the classic book won’t connect so much with the content. That said, lively performances and energetically shot scenes often imbue in the viewer a longing to jump in a car and just take off.
As Paradise is asked at the beginning, “You goin’ some place? Or are you just goin’?” The film clearly articulates the book’s philosophy that it’s the goin’ that counts.