Over 65 years after its publication, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road is vividly brought to life by the filmmaking team of Walter Salles and Jose Rivera. A thoroughly captivating work defined by ever-changing scenery, memorable characters, and an active pace, it’s one of the few adaptations that feel of the time in which the material was originally conceived. With the passionate friendship between budding writer Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) and untethered soul Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) at its core, the film returns to the genesis of the beat generation and, through meticulously recreating the era, gives its pioneers the treatment they deserve.
Like its characters, On The Road is too restless to remain in one location for too long. Offering a new vista with each exquisitely framed shot, the film hops from New York to San Francisco with a plethora of stops in between, sporting a faded tinge that suggests a distinct post-WWII feel. Matching the visuals are a cast of vibrant characters whose existential musings flow freely like the jazz that scores their actions. If these young explorers aren’t stoned, drunk, or having sex, they’re working on rectifying that situation, and within such exciting filmmaking this constant quest for pleasure takes on a somewhat noble air.
Giving the film more than just hedonistic appeal is its central bromance, one that sustains its freshness despite being essentially the same story on repeat. Time and again, Dean embarks on his passion of the moment, Sal reunites with him in a new setting, and the combination of Dean’s ennui and trail of broken hearts begins the process anew. Drawn to borderline nymphomaniac Marylou (a saucy Kristen Stewart), Dean likewise craves the maturity and stability of “Helen of Troy with a brain” Camille (Kirsten Dunst). As the women embrace and subsequently expunge him, each iteration intensifies the overarching drama, reflecting the second chances and disappointments that are cornerstones of human frailty. Dean’s lust for life therefore makes him both exciting and toxic, and just as those he encounters can never quite quit him, neither can we.
Such thoughtful filmmaking likewise aids in the appreciation of beat writing’s polarizing style. By presenting the situations and environments that inspire the poetry, the text gains new meaning as its heartfelt intentions play out onscreen. Though the ramblings of Dean, Sal, and their buddy Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge) often flirt with annoyance, Rivera’s script reels them in before running overlong. Paired with Salles’ outstanding eye, this smart writing solidifies On The Road as an exercise in cinematic precision and a rollicking one at that.
Rated R for strong sexual content, drug use and language.
On The Road is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.