I have seen Sam Riley in exactly two films, both times playing a cultural icon: he was suicidal Joy Division singer Ian Curtis in Control (2007), and now he takes on an even trickier part as Sal Paradise, Jack Kerouac’s alter ego in his novel On the Road. The book is the basis for this film by Walter Salles, who has his own experience with iconic figures—as well as soul-searching road trips—having chronicled Che Guevara’s early years in The Motorcycle Diaries.
Diaries tracked a single motorcycle trip. The “life on the road” Kerouac wrote about has less structure. Sal and his life-loving buddy Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) head out together, split up, return to New York, take off for other cities, and encounter other artists, bohemians, and eccentrics, their experiences blurring together into a shapeless travelogue. Sometimes the blur has a pleasurable spontaneity, especially when Riley and Hedlund, both charismatic, bump up against supporting characters played by a sterling, eclectic supporting cast. If you haven’t read the book, the movie is unpredictable. On the Road does not bind itself by rules of traditional cinematic narrative.
But it’s also shaped by the difficulties of adapting such a book for the screen. It includes many shots of Sal at a typewriter, much dialogue about being a writer, and even more voiceover narration taken directly from the book’s prose. Besides their clunkiness, these devices put the movie in direct competition with Kerouac’s words; even when Riley reads them nicely, it’s more a testament to their power than the film’s.
Maybe the words overshadow the images because the visual language of youthful bohemia has become so familiar. As with Motorcycle Diaries, Salles uses handheld cameras, warm graininess, and shots of the road rushing by to place the audience in the middle of the characters’ journey. Aesthetically, it’s pleasant but a little rote.
The film finds more energy in its performers, especially those unconstrained by playing “writers,” who here tend to be self-important and self-conscious. Among these, Dean’s young sort-of wife Marylou (Kristen Stewart) is most intriguing. An emotionally and sexually accommodating travel companion (and proto-hippie, of sorts), she may have another fiancé back home in the Midwest. Stewart slips effortlessly back into indie mode after years in Twilight, and sheds many of her usual mannerisms; in non-heroine, non-fantastical roles, she has electricity and charisma. As Camille, a more mature rival for Dean’s affections, Kirsten Dunst continues her recent tendency to harden her bubbliness into something sadder, angrier, more rueful.
The movie doesn’t sugarcoat the flaky, sometimes selfish guys who inspire these feelings in Camille and Marylou. But neither does the screenplay make the men much more interesting than the thinly drawn individuals they meet along their travels. It’s a democratic approach that, intentionally or not, leaves the movie centerless despite fine work from Riley and Hedlund.
Thankfully, On the Road doesn’t try to compensate by indulging in sweeping, nostalgic statement about the American ‘50s or even the seeds of ‘60s counterculture. Instead of generalizations about the Beat generation, it offers a look at postwar youth-and-arts culture that hadn’t yet been galvanized (or mainstreamized) by the introduction of rock and roll. Being a 2012 film instead of a 1957 novel, it can also more directly address sexuality. It’s admirably frank and fluid about the attractions among Sal, Dean, Marylou, and others in their orbit.
There’s a lot to admire about On the Road, and the filmmakers’ love and respect for their source are obvious. Their reverence, though, may also be a crutch, and it makes the film feel small and supplemental. The book isn’t a straight memoir, but the movie acts like an adaptation of one: too often, it builds to Sal sitting down and writing about what we’ve just seen. When this becomes a focal point, it reduces the movie to a celebration that the book exists.