Walter Salles is the go-to director of road movies after “Motorcycle Diaries” (2004) and now this brilliant adaptation of On The Road. Salles gives us the tedium of hours and days spent trapped in the car even as it’s careening across the county speeding Sal, Dean and Marylou on grand adventures. Sam Riley, so amazing in “Control” (2007) is our writer. Sal, the stand-in for Jack Kerouac, is shown observing and absorbing the wild ride. The quest? To experience life to the fullest! Nights fueled by drugs, alcohol and passion are spent soul searching, dancing in clubs, and fornicating.
Feverishly scribbling in his tiny notebook, Sal watches the mesmerizing Dean (a naked performance by an often naked Garrett Hedlund) who seems to bed everyone who falls under his spell. Kristen Stewart gives a fearless, yet vulnerable performance as his 16-year-old bride, Marylou, who becomes Dean’s willing companion in their mad hedonistic pursuits.
Scenes of partying till the wee hours are followed by Sal smoking, staring at his blank page in the type writer, Dean in the car lot smoking as he waits to park cars…both characters stalled. From this stillness, the film jumps to more action and they’re racing down the road again. Stealing food, gasoline and sometimes cars, the friends meet some interesting characters on their journeys. Great unexpected cameos by big name actors add another layer of richness to the story.
Running time is two hours, but still Kirsten Dunst’s character, Camille gets short shrift. She’s introduced as a beautiful, confident young student photographed in a golden light. Dressed in rich colors, her hair coiffed in a blond bob, she’s in love with Dean and described as “Helen of Troy with a brain”. Then in quick transitions, the color drains from her scenes. Dean spends his days with her and his nights with his friend and lover, Carlos. And finally, heavily-pregnant, Camille is shown comforting their crying toddler. Golden no more, she’s wearing no make-up, in a white nightgown in a white room. As Dean leaves to go out carousing with Sal, Camille weeps in bed.
The film is full of small still moments brilliantly acted by this young cast and the story is one of contrasts and consequences. In this world, you must leave Dean to fully live your life. Carlo flees the country to become a poet and pursue his male lovers. Sal finds love in the fields of cotton pickers and, even Marylou must finally sever her connection to Dean by moving away and getting married. Dean’s mesmerizing influence is inspiring but ultimately dangerous. Only by rejecting Dean and getting on with his life, can Sal write his novel and turn this pain and passion for Dean into art.
“On The Road” is a master work that does that rare thing; it makes the viewer want to read (or re-read) the novel. Thank you Walter Salles.
Rating: 5 shots (cheap whiskey or mezcal), highest rating