On the Road

November 16, 2012 6:00 pm

‘On the Road’ is by no means a bad film.

I would suggest that the reason many critics have found it distasteful could be because they have failed to understand it. And by it, I mean ‘it’. Unfortunately, ‘it’ – the drive that is submerged behind Kerouac’s majestic prose – is only sometimes present in the film. Despite this, the film has enough scenes of  serenity and contrastingly, rushed urgency, to move the viewer: the adrenalin of a New Year’s Eve party, the loneliness of freedom, the life on the road is ‘lived’ by the audience, as  is the emptiness and fullness of friendship. This leads me right into what I encourage any reader of this review to retain: Kerouac’s novel is the masterpiece; Walter Salles’ film is somewhat a companion to it. I will repeat, in order to fully appreciate the film, one must equally consider the prose from which it was modeled.

Now that’s out of the way, the film itself is visually vibrant and enormously entertaining. One could forget the story, yet appreciate the film solely on the merit of Eric Gautier’s radiant cinematography, reminiscent of his previous work filming ‘Into the Wild’. Gautier captures the jazz bars of New York and the ever-open road, ever-leading West, with brilliant clarity and honesty. Complementary to the cinematography, the viewer is drenched in the ‘feel’ of 50s America at the height of ‘cool’. Throughout its 124 minute running time, one becomes transported back to a world non-existent today, almost with the emotion of meeting old friends and places that have never changed. That, for me, was the most absorbing quality of the film, the albeit pseudo-history that was being brought to life before my eyes.


In terms of characters, Sam Riley breathes life most believably into the film’s protagonist Sal Paradise, Kerouac’s alter-ego; it’s just a shame Garrett Hedlund fails to inject sufficient energy into Dean Moriarty, real life Neal Cassidy. It is here that the film falls short, Dean’s charisma and indescribable attraction is not portrayed strongly enough. Without sufficient context, one would fail to understand the magnetic force of the personality who draws others with him around America. However, the standout character is, as always, the great Steve Buscemi, playing just as underwritten and under praised a role as ever he does. Buscemi, in approximately 4 minutes of screen time, manages to form not only the most comical, but also the most downright outrageous scene in the film. He is on top form.
In being a film adaptation of one of the most influential books of the century, ‘On the Road’ definitely exceeded the very low expectation I had of it prior to viewing. Though it is no substitute for the novel, nor a classic, it is thoroughly entertaining, and it is thrilling waiting for memorable scenes to be brought to life. For viewers with no knowledge of Kerouac, the film marks a commendably concise entry into the world of Beat literature, poetics and history. The film’s running time is scarcely enough to contain such a journey, such an adventure, such a generation.

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