We Gotta Find Ourselves Some Kicks
In adapting Jack Kerouac’s famously skittish book On the Road, Walter Salles has conjured a movie that’s raging and serene, always looking over the horizon while grooving on the beauty of the here and now. This is no small feat. Salles made The Motorcycle Diaries, the only other great road film of recent memory, but still, there are many ways for a Kerouac film to go bust (see The Subterraneans), and this one avoids nearly all of them. Maybe it leaves too much of the book’s kinetic language on the floor; this is a story about words almost as much as it is about movement, the road. But as these burning, dreaming, and frustrated wanderers blast back and forth across postwar America in search of what they don’t know, the smoky poetry of its wide vistas and clangorous urban buzz provide a kick, a true kick.
Kerouac’s stand-in is Sal Paradise (Sam Riley, finding a nice variation on the doomed artist he previously inhabited as Ian Curtis in Control), a would-be author living in his mother’s apartment in Queens at the end of the 1940s. He pals around with his alternately effusive and panic-stricken poet friend Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge), a not-at-all veiled portrait of Allen Ginsberg. And together, they’re entranced by the volcanic presence of Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), a bottle rocket of a guy who blows in from Denver and is described by Sal’s raspy and mannered narration (which sounds affectedly be-bop-ish, but is actually a decent take on Kerouac’s speaking voice) as having spent “a third of his time in the pool hall, a third in jail, and a third in the public library.”
Dean—Kerouac’s handle for his real-life obsession, Neal Cassady—is already looking to get out of New York and back to San Francisco with one girl in tow, Marylou (Kristen Stewart, getting out of her comfort zone just slightly), and a girl to marry on the other side, Camille (Kirsten Dunst). Sal hitchhikes out West with his notebook, starting the film’s racketing volleys of cross-country travel and bleary-eyed Benzedrine nights.
The sheltered and shy Sal (a Canadian who speaks a reedy French with his dour and disapproving mother, lurking powerfully in his subconscious) is wholly ready to latch on to a scrapper like Dean. Sal doesn’t care that Dean is all about the hustle (“He was conning me and I knew it, and he knew that I knew it”). It helps his appeal that Dean drives like a bat out of hell, and in lengthy scenes on the road, Salles does some of his best work, creating little visual poems out of the patter of rain on the windshield and the chatter inside.
Still, Dean is an odd creature. The Dean of the book was a motor-mouthed live wire who never used one word when 15 would do. Hedlund plays him in a lower key, with a deeper voice and more deliberative style, at times seeming almost lethargic. But he remains magnetic, tearing up the highway, chain-smoking, and crashing naked through a variety of cold-water flats (sleeping with every woman they come across, even cajoling a semi-protesting Carlo into a three-way). He’s the beautiful drifter whom Sal can’t quite admit he loves, though they grip and hug and peer deeply into each other’s eyes more than once. (Not for nothing do we see Dean reading Swann’s Way.) That he will let everybody down eventually is preordained.
Besides Dean, only Kerouac’s version of William S. Burroughs, Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen, approximating Burroughs’ razorblade cadences and air of aristocratic desolation) seems able to stand apart from the whirling storm. In a brief interlude during yet another long drive, Sal, Dean, and the gang pop into Bull’s secluded house in Louisiana, where their pistol-packing surrogate father smack-dozes in a chair, syringe tracks red on his arm. Unlike Carlo, Sal, and Dean, Bull is the writer who doesn’t talk about it.
His difference makes clear how writing drives On the Road. Too many attempts to dramatize or explain the Americanus beatnik genus tend to zoom in on their artistic desires. As a subset of the 20th century’s ever-expanding categories of countercultural types, the beatniks usually portrayed as poets and novelists, painters and musicians (unlike, say, punks or hippies, defined by their fashion and attitude). This movie appears to follow suit: everybody here (the men, at least) wants to write, and it’s killing them that the words don’t come easier. But what this film understands is that while On the Road is a novel about trying to write a novel (or more accurately, trying to find a subject worthy of a novel), it’s also about how life gets in the way.
The life that Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera capture here is one of random happenstance, young men throwing themselves loose into great American spaces. Sal wanders with a purpose, hungry for experience to fuel his novel-to-be. He picks cotton with migrant workers, desperately hitches rides in a snowstorm, and lives hand-to-mouth and apartment to apartment in that way he never could today. He walks past a billboard for a housing development, promising a bland and regularized suburban future. He and Dean lose themselves in roaring reveries at jazz shows (this being the rare film that treats jazz like rock and roll, vivid and raw), banging open Benzedrine capsules and toasting the night.
Though Salles’ film ignores too much of Kerouac’s verbosity and Dean’s truly manic speed, it also recognizes the novel’s energy and tragedy. Eventually the car will run out of gas, and everyone will turn in for the night, glowing with memory but also a little sad and very alone.