Adapting Jack Kerouac’s iconic 1957 novel, On The Road – a stirring portrait of alienated youths in post-war America, would surely be no easy task for any filmmaker – and it seems that Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) clearly loves a challenge.
On The Road follows young writer Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) who after the death of his father, embarks on a road trip with the magnetic, free-spirited embodiment of the beat movement, Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund).
To many readers, Kerouac’s On The Road was a portrait of a lost generation – an alienated youth searching for a sense of purpose. It captured a generation that wanted to explore the world, live to the fullest and search for greater meaning in life. These are issues still relevant to the youth of any society, proven by the endearing legacy that On The Road has left. Fortunately, Walter Salles adaptation perfectly captures the essence and heart of Keouac’s novel – proving to be a stunningly crafted interpretation of a timeless narrative.
Salles film captures the loose, free-spirited nature of the Beat movement, whilst paying staggering detail to the period settings. This is channeled through striking shots of the seemingly endless open road, wide plains and hazy, drug fueled parties and jazz clubs where patrons literally living through the music. These sequences particularly the latter, strike immediate parallels with John Cassavetes’ seminal beat classic, Shadows. Like Sam and Dean’s (initial) lives – Salles directs On The Road, with a sense of aimless freedom and beauty, feeling like it cannot be confined. Whilst the sometimes aimless, dwindling feel of On The Road may cause some viewers to feel detached – it serves as a perfect representation of these integral themes of Kerouac’s novel.
As visually striking as it may be, Salles’ film succeeds mainly as a stirring tale of character development. As the characters – in particular, Dean, embark on this journey – they gradually discover that their actions do have consequences. Dean’s continual fulfillment of his own egocentric desires further alienates him, driving him apart from those he loves. Garrett Hedlund captures this magnificently – his performance can only be described as a revelation, capturing the magnetic charm of Dean. Hedlund allows us to see why Sam and others are drawn to Dean, he is the infatuating embodiment of youth and the Beat movement. His transformation from an almost prophet like figure to the depths of alienation proves to be completely heartbreaking – although he has hurt others, one cannot help but still feel compassionate towards this character – surely a testament to Kerouac’s writing and Hedlund’s skill as an actor.
The dynamic between Sal and Dean proves to be equally as fascinating, particularly through Sal’s initial fascination with Dean slowly turn into a sense of detachment and pity. Sam Riley, an actor who has failed to truly shine after 2007’s Control, takes a while to get comfortable in the role but eventually hits his stride. The same can be said for Kristen Stewart, who should be commended for her performance as Dean’s on-off girlfriend Marylou, a truly brave role. Whilst she occasionally reverts to her traditional seductive glances and lip biting, this arguably works well here in the free-spirited character.
There are a mix of eclectic supporting turns including the sensational Kirsten Dunst, as another of Dean’s flames, Camille. Dunst’s channels the pain and hurt that Dean’s lack of commitment has on her and their newborn children – leaving a lasting impact on the viewer. There are also scene stealing turns from Viggo Mortensen and Amy Adams, as well as Terence Howard and Steve Buscemi (and if you want to see some Hedlund on Buscemi action – you’ll be in luck *shudders*…)
On The Road is a magnificent attempt at capturing Kerouac’s challenging source novel. Salles manages to convey the real essence and spirit of the Beat Movement, set against a stirring backdrop of character transformation. Garrett Hedlund is truly unbelievable in the role of Dean, proving to be one of the finest performances of the year.