On The Road

Art & Culture


It's nearly 60 years since Jack Kerouac first wrote the manuscript for what would become one of the most famous novels of the 20th century – and until now, the one seemed as if it would never be filmed. Well now it has, and contrary to what you might have heard, it's pretty good.
I'm not sure why so many critics have been so down on the film. Perhaps they all have cherished memories of it as a favourite novel from their younger day, and to make a film of it is like blasphemy. I never had that feeling about the original, so I managed to watch the film without needing to make comparisons.
Sal Paradise aka Jack Kerouac (Sam Riley)is a young writer living in New York, looking for a publisher, but also for some excitement in his life. It arrives in the shape of Dean Moriarty aka Neal Casady (Garret Hedlund), a narcissistic but charismatic guy who likes fast cars and loose women, preferably at the same time. He roams from city to city at breakneck speed, and is happy to take his new buddy along with, as well as Mary-Lou (Kristen Stewart) his jailbait girlfriend – it's illegal to transport a minor across state lines and she is under 18.
The film is long, at over 2 hours, and there is no discernible plot or narrative thread to the film, but the same is true of the book, and to try to simplify it for a cinema audience would have been insulting. Dean is a lost soul roaming the world looking for purpose and meaning but failing to do so. Instead he swears eternal friendship or undying love (depending on the gender of the person he's talking to), with all the sincerity of a drowning man begging for a lifeline. He means what he says at the time, but the time soon passes – in about 5 minutes. It's not to say that he doesn't love Sal in an alter ego kind of way, and anyway he finds men so much easier to deal with (and if necessary, sleep with) than women. Camille (Kirsten Dunst) is another victim of his irresistible charms, and ends up with two babies for her pains.
Other real life characters pop up, such as William Burroughs, played by Viggo Mortensen, and Alan Ginsberg who goes by the name of Carlo Marx – a missing Marx brother, presumably. But they're all grist to Moriarty's mill, as is Sal himself, until he realises the true nature of his best friend, and that writing about their adventures together is a better bet than continuing to have them. The novel is the Bible of the Beat Generation, a key text that follows the swerving curve of the American Dream, and ends up in a ditch at the end of Easy Rider. Part of the myth is the 2 guys together against the world bromance that lies behind films like Lethal Weapon and Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. Another strand is the live hard, die young and leave a good-looking corpse delusion that James Dean epitomised (and neither Casady nor Kerouac lived to the age of 50). And then there's the element that is encapsulated in the title. The road has always had a mythological element to it in American culture, all the way through to Christopher McCandless, the subject of the book and film, Into The Wild, about a guy who bought into the idea that escaping from civilisation was the path to enlightenment.
Enough with the cultural references. This is an excellent film, with a lovely rhythm to it, finding the right balance between manic and relaxed. The cast are all good, America looks wonderful, and I can't help thinking that Kerouac himself would not have objected too strenuously to this adaptation.

Phil Raby

Front Row Films

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