Director: Walter Salles
Starring: Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst
It's been a long time coming. Thirty-odd years in the making, a film adaptation of Jack Kerouac's classic beat generation novel has seen countless casts, writers and directors come and go. Until now. The Brazilian director Walter Salles, who so beautifully rendered the young Che Guevara's formative South American road trip in The Motorcycle Diaries, takes on Kerouac's meandering tale of youthful rebellion, as the author's alter-ego Sal Paradise thumbs his way across post-war America.
Adapted by José Rivera, the screenwriter for The Motorcycle Diaries, On the Road documents the friendship between the aspiring writer Sal (Sam Riley) and the irrepressible Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund). Modelled after the beat icon Neal Cassady, Dean draws in folks like moths to a flame - notably his first wife Marylou (Kristen Stewart), who never disappears from his affections even when he remarries the long-suffering, stay-at-home Camille (Kirsten Dunst).
With Sal along for the ride, On the Road unfolds as a series of loosely linked vignettes as the characters criss-cross the continent, from San Francisco to Denver to across the border into Mexico. Like any road trip, there are stretches of the film that feel repetitive, but there's enough momentum to ensure the story never winds up in a cul-de-sac, partly because a series of eye-opening cameos (Amy Adams, Elisabeth Moss, Steve Buscemi among others) is thrown in.
Indeed, it's hard not to jolt upright when Viggo Mortensen arrives on screen as the gun-toting Old Bull Lee, the fictional equivalent of the pioneering novelist William S Burroughs.
But Salles's film is about more than just celebrity spots. At its heart is a tender, tear-strained friendship between Sal and Dean; if Riley can sometimes feel emotionally distant as Sal, the Tron: Legacy star Garrett Hedlund burns up the screen as his counterpart. Their final scene in the film will tear at your heart.
If Salles and Rivera never quite overcome the patchwork nature of Kerouac's plotless book, their film more than makes up for it with its sense of period detail and texture. From the clothes to the jazz sounds that flow from the dive bars that Sal and company frequent, On the Road feels late-1940s authentic. The audience is left with a snapshot of a generation that still resonates today. It's not perfect - the frequent shots of the characters ingesting the drug of choice Benzedrine are tiresome - but for the most part, On the Road is worth a look.
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