Genre: Adventure, Drama
Directed by: Walter Salles
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams, Kirsten Dunst, Steve Buscemi, Viggo Mortensen, Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley
Films that base themselves on well-loved pieces of literature have a lot of pressure riding on them. It’s impossible for a film to conform to the imagination of every single fan and when what’s on the screen doesn’t hold up to what’s in your head, you can’t help but be disappointed. Here’s the problem with reviewing such films; if you love the book then your mind is likely to be clouded when watching the film. I had such a problem with Salles’s 2004 film The Motorcycle Diaries; I accept it is a well-crafted and acted film, but as a lover of the book it failed to explore the character of Che as much as I would have liked and was therefore a disappointment.
I have a confession to make… I have never read On the Road. However, I do know a lot about its significance as a novel and a have a basic understanding of the plot. So while you may look down on me for not reading one of the most important pieces of American literature, this does allow me to critique the film without my love for the book getting in the way.
The story, based on Kerouac’s travels across America, follows narrator Sal Paradise and his best friend Dean Moriarty as they both travel across America both separately and together. Along the way they search for an allusive freedom that they so desperately crave; a way of escaping the accepted conformity of American society for a life that they believe has meaning.
Spending nearly every scene in front of the camera and narrating throughout, British actor Sam Riley holds the film together effortlessly on his own. He manages to allow you to root for Sal, a character desperate to give his own life meaning, but struggling to do this while living with his mother who believes in old-fashioned values. Meanwhile Garrett Hedlund manages to make Dean Moriarty, an immature lost boy who would rather have fun than support his family, almost likeable and during the first half of the film the pace noticeably picks up whenever he is on the screen.
Salles’s talent for finding the most spectacular landscapes also adds to the film. It really is beautifully shot and top praise must go to cinematographer Eric Gautier who manages to show the vast splendor of the American countryside.
Of course, being set on the road, the film contains lots of supporting roles and it’s here that the film lets itself down; writer Jose Rivera appears to show no interest in the various supporting characters that our 2 protagonists meet and this derails the film. It’s a shame too as some of these supporting roles are brought to life by great performances; most notably Kirsten Dunst and Steve Buscemi who are both memorable in the short time they are on the screen. It’s a shame we have to spend more time with characters such as Marylou, a tiresome, one-dimensional character brought to life by the less then talented Kristen Stewart.
The film also struggles to get a message across to the audience, which means it’s very hard to keep an interest in what you are watching. What really excited me about this film was the opportunity to watch the exploration of America’s views on the changing of society in the late 40’s/early 50’s, much in the same way Easy Rider did when looking at the American counterculture of the 60’s. Instead the film shows the changes; love of new music, the growing want to experiment with drugs and sexuality, as highlighted through the stories of Sal and Dean, without ever really spending time exploring people’s thoughts and feelings towards it.
It’s a shame, as this appears to be the same problem I had with Salles’s The Motorcycle Diaries; you can adapt a narrative, but that’s nothing if you’re unable to show the thoughts and feelings expressed within it.