NB: these are my notes on the film, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
I assume Jack Kerouac’s novel has been in development pretty much since its 1957 publication (it was written six years before that) and has resisted adaptation by any number of smitten film folks. At least, it avoided becoming something like the film of The Subterraneans – though so much of it has seeped into a variety of other works, like the TV series Route 66 or the On-the-Road-but-with-hippies-on-bikes-not-beats-in-cars Easy Rider; Walter Salles’ film has even been gazumped by biopics like Heartbeat (and Howl!), doocumentaries like What Happened to Kerouac? and other adaptations like Naked Lunch (which has characters inspired by the same set of real people who inspired Kerouac). And the beatniks have been filtered through cinema by skits A Bucket of Blood and The Rebel rather than their actual work – as a group, they were focused on prose and hung up on music, and showed surprisingly little interest in the movies though it’s possible that the myth of On the Road was stewed a little by They Drive by Night or Guncrazy, even if all these folk did in the way of crime was a little light shoplifting (here, that’s all right because they only steal from shops with have prominent signs saying that the establishments won’t serve ethnic minorities) and Dean Moriarty’s legendary car thefts. Though it works hard at getting a beat rhythm, with Slim Gaillard’s act recreated and a jagged stutter through times and places, this can’t help but seem a museum piece. The world is meticulously recreated, but that just draws attention to the fact that it’s not really there any more – all these cars, petrol pumps, diners, rat-trap apartments and orgone boxes are long gone, and have been polished up for the occasion. The same might be said for the people who whizz through.
The basic premise of On the Road is that authors are vampires – Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), the Kerouac character, is just one of a bunch of creatives drawn into the chaos of outlaw bisexual philosopher-thief Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), who is based on drifter Neal Cassidy. At the end of a couple of years’ ride, Sal cold-shoulders Dean when approached in the wintery street, but settles down to type out On the Road on a roll of continuous paper, capturing the hustler’s soul and gaining literary success with it. Bastard, eh? But the time he saw Dean before that was when they went down to Mexico and he caught a hideous disease and Dean skipped out to have fun, leaving him to his fever … and it’s well-established that all the hilarious hijinx and tomcatting about Dean does, and encourages his mates to do, winds up grinding down both his wives, cast-off waifs played (very well) by guest stars Kristen Stewart and Kirsten Dunst. Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen), the William S. Burroughs character, does point out what a user and cadger Dean is, but is equally trapped inside his own head (and box) while his wife (Amy Adams) scrubs floors and has paranoid spasms about lizards in the trees. We do see Sal pick cotton and have a semi-decent relationship with a migrant girl (Alice Braga) and generally try to experience the responsible and demanding side of life, as well as the three-in-a-bed tumbles and benzedrine-fuelled free-form conversations and larks that made this crowd the role models for every subsequent generation of drop-out self-explorer.
It may be that the things in the film that annoy are more to do with the things about these people that grate, and – to his credit – Kerouac caught on very early that this was the case. Salles – who previously hit the road with The Motorcycle Diaries, which was about someone who took part in revolutions and governments rather than took cash for buggering Steve Buscemi and skipped out on his pregnant wife to go to a Gaillard concert (the jazzman is plaued by a well-cast Coati Mundi) – points up the hypocrisies and obnoxiousness of the heroes. The film spends far less time than any 1960s/70s counterculture movie on demonising the straights (corrupt cops just want cash ‘fines’ for speeding, rather than dishing out death with a shotgun) and the performances do convey the mercurial appeal of these guys in their finest moments, even if there is a tendency to reduce their complex relationship to a simple repressed gay crush with a publishing deal at the end of it. Oddly, there isn’t quite enough road for me – the looking-through-flyblown windows at America bit doesn’t pique Salles’ interest much, and he often distorts things (none of these cars have functional windscreen wipers) by looking at the landscape through films of rain or snow. Cool soundtrack choices, too – though the song used to symbolise the world the beats hate (‘Buttons and Bows’) is slightly off, since it comes from a satirical movie (The Paleface) and has a relatively unusual message (like one of the folksongs in A Mighty Wind, it’s ironically about the joys of staying home – a veiled critique of the whiner in the car going on about the lack of home comforts).
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