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On the Road - review

A fine reworking of a cult novel unmasks the original.

On the Road (15)
dir: Walter Salles

The temptation to herald On the Road as the most insightful literary adaptation in recent cinema should not be resisted. José Rivera’s screenplay follows the map of Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel about his pan-American wanderings in the late 1940s and early 1950s. But the film is also an interrogation of the book: its director, Walter Salles, pursues a passionate, even disgruntled, argument with Kerouac.

Any gap of understanding felt by modern audiences towards the beat generation is bridged quickly by cinematic shorthand: roaming camera, jittery editing, a jazz-for-beginners soundtrack of thudding double bass and hissing highhats. There is a British bias in the main cast, with Sam Riley, whose face suggests a prince not quite de-frogged, as the watchful Sal (the Kerouac figure), and Tom Sturridge bringing to the excitable, bramble-haired Carlo (Allen Ginsberg by another name) a playful curl of the lip.

The sun around which they orbit is Dean (aka Neal Cassady). As played by the pretty American actor Garrett Hedlund, Dean is charismatic enough to nip in the bud any doubts about how people tolerate his flightiness, but sufficiently mutable to suggest that the adulation of others will never sustain him. Once the beats’ credo of philosophy and pharmaceuticals is established, the film starts noticing those people exasperated or excluded by the party. Sal and Dean may be kings of the road behind their scratched windscreen, but Salles is meticulous in balancing the ledger. There is no liberation in the film without suffering, no beat generation without its beaten-down counterpart (usually female).

Starting with Sal’s mother, who sits in dim light while he packs for his latest adventure, women in the film tend to be consigned to rooms while the excitement happens elsewhere. It’s perfectly excusable for Sal to leave behind an ageing parent when going on a narcotic voyage of discovery, though I’m curious to know whether dope and Benzedrine, the beats’ drugs of choice, would have the same disruptive effect on his mother’s knitting as they did on spiders’ webs in those 1940s experiments.

The first time we meet Dean’s teenage wife, Marylou (Kristen Stewart), he is ordering her into the kitchen. Her social standing doesn’t improve noticeably, though she is allowed in the driving seat, literally if not figuratively. She also gets to express her discontentment with Dean, as does his second wife, Camille (Kirsten Dunst). While Dean and Sal goof around in the next room, the camera initiates its visual allegiance to Camille, whose life has shrunk to the dimensions of her child’s cot. The picture measures, down to the last teardrop, the historical cost to women of the freedom of men.

Built into the film’s DNA is information that has become a matter of record over the years. Where the novel left Dean and Carlo staring into one another’s eyes, the film shows their relationship to be a meeting of bodies as well as minds. The book’s homophobic asides, explicable from this distance as a case of the beatnik protesting too much, are replaced by analysis; an older man derided in the novel as a “fag” is now a temporary proxy for Dean’s lost father. In common with an earlier draft of the novel, the film starts with the death of Sal’s own father, rather than the break-up of his marriage. That amendment establishes the movie as a Lost Boys’ own story.

This is not so much reading between the lines as pulling up Kerouac’s sentences like floorboards and shining a torch into the darkness beneath. Occasionally this takes a comic form, with jokes expressed in abrupt editing for which there is no literary equivalent – jumping from a wide shot of Dean’s speeding car to a close-up of him pushing the vehicle. That style of cutting, or undercutting, can provide depth. After boasting of his participation in an orgy, Dean slumps into a chair and the film cuts to an image that might be an X-ray of his soul: a field steeped in snow and silence.

If this makes Salles sound like a party-pooper, he still allows the characters lightness. Dean’s exuberance is a source of fun as well as frustration and the film scores some laughs off his  redictable priapism. When he stirs from a nap on the back seat to tell Sal and Marylou that he has a great idea for livening up the journey, chances are it won’t be a game of I spy, unless it’s naked I spy. There is also a palate-cleansing interlude at the Louisiana home of Old Bull Lee, aka William Burroughs (Viggo Mortensen), and his wife Jane (Amy Adams). Old Bull is in a morphine daze, a tie looped around his trackmarked forearm and an infant snoozing on his lap, while Jane sweeps lizards out of the trees. Even this unorthodox clan embodies a model of domestic harmony unattainable by Dean.

The cinematographer Éric Gautier achieves an impressive visual breadth, from sun-frazzled Pueblos to New York alleys where lit cigarettes hang like fireflies in the blue morning. You’d expect the director of The Motorcycle Diaries to make On the Road gratifying to the eye. But the key to the film’s brilliance lies in Salles’s insistence on telling the story of the beats through the off-beats. He coaxes out harmonies previously inaudible to the human ear.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, India special