Review: ‘On The Road’ makes great use of Kristen Stewart, Garrett Hedlund, and Sam Riley

CANNES – Many filmmakers have attempted to adapt Jack Kerouac’s seminal novel “On The Road” over the years, but Walter Salles is the guy who finally wrestled it up onto the screen.  It is a largely successful attempt to bring the book to life, and it follows the same sort of episodic rhythm that Salles utilized so well in “The Motorcycle Diaries.”  While I would not call it a towering accomplishment, it is far more successful than I would have expected knowing the source material.

It would be interesting to take all of the films that exist that deal with the Beat Generation and the various characters who defined the era and look at how these people have been interpreted though various artistic filters.  After all, “On The Road” was Kerouac’s biography, but through a very thin filter of fiction.  He renamed people, turning himself into Sal Paradise, the novel’s narrator, while he turned the charming and charismatic Neal Cassady into the iconic Dean Moriarty.  Cronenberg’s adaptation of “Naked Lunch” used a similar device, taking the unfilmable William Burroughs novel and turning it into a film that is as much about the writing of the book as the book itself.  We’ve seen films like “Howl” and “The Sheltering Sky” tackle the era and the figures who wrote those remarkable works, and there are, of course, plenty of documentaries that also tackle the era, giving these people a chance to make a case for their own place in cultural history.  The result is that we’ve got a pretty dense tapestry of material to choose from now if we want to try to understand what it was like to both create these works and to live in an era where they were fresh and causing major cultural shifts.

“On The Road” does not feel like a dry history lesson, nor is it overly reverent toward its subjects.  Instead, Salles, working with screenwriter Jose Rivera, managed to make something that has a pulse of its own, and that’s due in no small part to the casting of Garrett Hedlund and Sam Riley as Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise.  They have a strong, easy chemistry that pays off over the course of the film, and it provides a solid base upon which the rest of the film is built. 

Kristen Stewart plays Marylou, one of the many women who exist in Dean’s orbit, drawn to his life-force and repelled by his inability to stay in one place, and it’s good work from her, further indication that as soon as she puts the “Twilight” series in her rearview mirror, she’s got a promising career ahead of her.  There is something simultaneously innocent and carnal about Marylou.  There’s no guile to her, and she is very clear about what she wants in every scene, very direct in the way she obtains it.  This was a point in post-war America where morals seemed to be up for grabs, when people were trying to define some new way of life, and these characters never realized that they would become symbols of that quest.  They were just chasing sensation and love and freedom, and the cast embodies that yearning with grace.

Tom Sturridge makes an excellent Carlo Marx, who was Kerouac’s stand-in for Allen Ginsberg, and I would love to see a whole movie about Old Bull Lee, played by Viggo Mortensen, who does a spot-on William Burroughs here.  Amy Adams is Jane, Bull’s partner in life, and the movie catches her at her most vulnerable and damaged, something Adams is able to evoke with real empathy.  Kirsten Dunst plays the other most significant woman in Dean’s life, his wife Camille, and it’s a tough role because she’s the one left outside looking in.  She doesn’t want Dean to keep wandering, but she knows she can’t stop him.  The pain she brings to each scene as she realizes he’s just not going to be the husband she needs him to be is palpable, and Dunst does nice work with not a lot of screen time.

Yes, the film feels episodic, but that’s the nature of the material.  It takes place over several years and traces the whole arc of the friendship between Sal and Dean, and for that to work, you have to see that time they spend together and the way it changes not only them, but the people around them.  Marylou spends much of the movie casually handed off between the guys, and sometimes shared by the both of them, and the film acutely observes the difference between Dean and Sal in how much they are able to disconnect the basic social programming of “normal” society.  Sal looks up to Dean for his ability to grab every sensation in life without hesitation or fear, and Dan looks up to Sal for his ability to turn these experiences into art.  The real difference between them only becomes clear over time, as Sal begins to bloom into a more complete and healthy person, while Dean can’t help but run the moment something threatens to matter to him.  There’s a sorrow that lies just beneath the surface of Dean’s decadent revelry, and Hedlund evokes that well.

Even the actors who show up in small roles do well with what they’re given.  Alice Braga plays a migrant worker who helps Sal during his first stretch of time away from home, and Elizabeth Moss has a few nice scenes as a wife abandoned by one of the many people who fall under Dean’s spell.  Steve Buscemi shows up for one memorable sequence that happens as Dean is starting to really struggle to retain his identity while still allowing for almost anything in terms of experience.  And for those who are curious, yes, the open sexual atmosphere of the book does indeed translate to the screen, and all the actors seem to handle it with a frankness that is to be admired.  I’m sure Stewart heard every argument in the world for why she shouldn’t do onscreen nudity, but there’s no hesitation or discomfort in the way she plays Marylou as an enthusiastic partner for both Dean and Sal.

Two of the key collaborators Salles worked with on “Motorcycle Diaries” return here.  I think Gustavo Santaolalla writes great film music that really captures an emotional state, and Eric Gautier, the director of photography, is one of my favorites working right now, bringing a crisp vibrant eye to film after film.  They all elevate the material, but again… this is no museum piece.  In the wrong hands, “On The Road” would feel like homework, but Salles managed to set aside the reputation of the piece and try to simply portray it in the same honest, direct voice that made it such an important book in the first place.  When you see it onscreen, without the cascading power of Kerouac’s meth-driven language, it seems smaller somehow, less “important,” but Salles certainly can’t be faulted for how he approached it.  His “On The Road” has a real heartbeat, and it’s a trip worth making.

“On The Road” opens in the US later this year.