On the Road

Published on September 27th, 2012

By Jason Reed

Director: Walter Salles
Writer: Jose Rivera, from the novel by Jack Kerouac
Starring: Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams, Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen
Length: 137 min.

On the Road is the semi-autobiographical story of Jack Kerouac, a well-known author from the Beat Generation. His novel follows Sal (Sam Riley), a young aspiring writer who travels across America in the late 1940s with his close friend Dean (Garrett Hedlund) and an assortment of other characters. Sal and Dean’s friendship seems unshakeable; they are rarely apart for long before one finds the other for another adventure. They experiment freely with drugs, sex and new experiences, all in an effort to find themselves and, for Sal, to write a book.

With the novel unfolding across four years and divided into five parts, a film adaptation of On the Road was always going to be a meandering, episodic experience; this is a narrative that prefers a detour or side street to the straight and narrow path. There is a loose sense of momentum driving the story towards a conclusion; however, the film takes its time reaching it.

This complaint would not be valid if On the Road was more engaging for its two and a bit hours. But the film starts to splutter in the final stretch, and there are a number of places where it seems on the verge of wrapping up, only to continue. While it’s undoubtedly important to maintain fidelity to the structure of this highly regarded text, some judicious editing might have tightened the film into a shape that would hold attention throughout.

The cast is crammed with talented actors, some of whom appear for only one or two scenes. Riley and Hedlund carry the film, their friendship feeling honest and longstanding. Riley’s appearance has transformed since his brilliant role in Control (Anton Corbijn 2007), where he played a young, skinny Ian Curtis. Many will recognise Hedlund from Tron: Legacy (Joseph Kosinski 2010), and he cements himself here as a versatile and charismatic young actor.

Viggo Mortensen brings an almost disturbing level of realism to his portrayal of Old Bull Lee, a character modelled on William S. Burroughs, while Amy Adams is almost unrecognisable as his wife, Jane. Kristen Stewart ably supports the two leads as Dean’s first wife, Marylou, and Kirsten Dunst brings subtlety and gravity to Camille, his second.

The different cities visited throughout the film – including in Mexico and Canada – all appear to have been shot on location, lending an authenticity to the characters’ journey. The cinematography is often hand-held and threatens to become annoyingly unstable at times. However, it is also frequently striking; a Mexico-set sequence involving a landscape of thousands of cacti is sublime.

I’ve found On the Road is a book that people love to have on their shelf, whether or not they have actually read it. At least now they can watch the film and pretend they know a little more.

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