Two films on life-changing experiences come to cinemas this month. Of these, On the Road is one that fans of beat literature will gravitate towards (the other is Ken Loach's The Angels' Share). But beware. There are reasons that Jack Kerouac’s iconic, semi-autobiographical novel waited over 50 years to make the transition to film. The novel’s loose and peripatetic structure (cruising between New York, Chicago, Denver, California and Mexico) is one. Another is the in-and-out narrative structure: the altered inner states of consciousness involving sex, drugs and jazz versus the great American outdoors. All this works fine on the page. On film, insistent imaging becomes a problem.
Charting trips undertaken by would-be writer Sal Paradise aka Kerouac (Sam Riley) and archetypal life affirmer Dean Moriarty aka Neal Cassady (Garrett Hedlund) across America was always going to involve bacchanalian frenzy. And the assorted company of muses and friends including Moriarty’s underage ex-wife Marylou (Kristin Stewart), wife Camille (Kirstin Dunst), and fellow poets Carlo Marx and Old Bull Lee (aka Ginsberg/Burroughs, played by Tom Sturridge and Viggo Mortensen) makes for some ride.
Director Salles intersperses scenes of vigorous dancing, threesomes and the use of restricted substances with road-trip poetics involving distant horizons and tousled hair. Beyond this point, however, there should be a point – the narrative should assert cohesion. The novel is held together by Sal’s sentimental education: the American version of an ancient subtext that pits reason against rage, the Apollonian against the Dionysian.
Although the rest of the ensemble cast remains shadowy, Riley and Hedlund inhabit these extremes well enough. It’s the movie’s flow that stutters, failing to convey the sense of a journey completed. Sure, transformation has taken place. The novel is written, the hero suited up. But the process, disappointingly, is more toe-dip than total immersion.
On the Road | Directed by Walter Salles (France, UK, USA, Brazil 2012) with Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kirsten Dunst, Kristen Stewart, Viggo Mortensen, Tom Sturridge. Starts October 4