REVIEW: On the Road

Directed by: Walter Salles

Written by: Jack Kerouac (book), Jose Rivera (screenplay)

Starring: Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley and Kristen Stewart

After his critically acclaimed and universally well received The Motorcycle Diaries, there’s really no one else that you’d rather have helming Jack Kerouac’s seminal beat generation novel On the Road. Premiering in Cannes this year Road tells the story of Sal (Sam Riley), a budding writer in New York City in 1948 where the intellectual scene is abuzz with existential enlightenment. Sal finds a kindred spirit in Dean (Hedlund) who ignites Sal’s desire to find ‘meaning’ – breaking out of the city norms and travelling to broaden his experience. Kerouac’s On the Road had an indelible affect on the entire hippy movement by showcasing progressive and tolerant people in the realms of sexuality, politics, love, relationships and gender in these fringe ‘beat’ niches.

Salles romanticizes the ‘Road’ metaphor – the profound draw of freedom and sublime beauty of being isolated against the backdrop of the American frontier. Road opens with the tarmac, like a rock mosaic conveyer belt rolling beneath Sal’s feet.The sunset hews melt against the rural savannahs and fields’ pre and post harvest. And Salles knows there’s something so beautiful watching those old cars fly down seemingly boundless straight highways at break neck speed.

Sam Riley captures the essence of Kerouac in the leading role of Sal – his dulcet gravelly tones project your perceptions of Kerouac at the time. However, unfortunately for Riley, Sal/Kerouac only has intermittently interesting interludes and asides; for the most part he’s the scribe of the journey – which results in lots of him writing against various backdrops etc. Hedlund is instantly charming and attractive as Dean (based on Kerouac’s friend and muse Neal Cassady). He’s desire and impulse manifest but the longer that you’re exposed to his potency, the greater tolerance you build up.

In mere moments, Kristen Stewart is given more to physically ‘do’ than in any of her stupendously unfulfilling, yet iconic Bella [Twilight]. Here she’s Denver born sexual dynamo Marylou, that actually gets play the smouldering sexy that’s briefly appeared in her body of work to date – with the freedom to act upon it.

The frenetic pace and wild abandon of sexual experimentation and drug taking maintains speed and pace for two acts but by the final act, other than the various eccentric signposts on their journey (Amy Adams, Viggo Mortensen, Steve Buscemi), feels samey and tired.

On the Road showcases universally solid performances under Salles direction – and weaves the majesty and allure of the diverse and wild vagabond life; unfortunately the wheels fall off in the final act. 

Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to the audio review on That Movie Show 2UE here.

On the Road is screening at the Sydney Film Festival and is released in Australia on the 4th of October 2012 and in the U.K on the 21st of September 2012.