In Big Sur, a 1962 novel by Jack Kerouac, Kerouac explicitly engaged with the success of On the Road and the celebrity he experienced as a result of the book. On the Road hangs heavy over the novel and clearly did over Kerouac too, a unavoidable behemoth, impossible to ignore. Fifty years later and the film adaptation of On the Road has finally reached the screen and the weighty significance of the novel still hangs heavy in the air.
In adapting On the Road screenwriter Jose Rivera, who previously worked with Walter Salles on The Motorcycle Diaries, has stayed close to the text and a voiceover from Sam Riley, as Sal Paradise, even provides the audience with snippets from the actual book read aloud. Throughout the film there is a unfortunate sense of reverence to the text, like an untouchable sacred artefact that should not be disturbed.
In treating the source material with such reverence though, and not making significant changes to enhance the cinematic experience, Rivera leaves the audience hanging. Where the book was iconic, capturing a time and a place, leaving a reader transfixed by the characters they encounter and absorbed by the world they inhabit, the film is distant with so little for an audience to grasp onto.
At the centre of the film, and arguably Rivera and Salles’ best attempt at an engaging development, is the relationship between Sal and Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund). The two are friends, co-conspirators and potential lovers – homo-erotic tension is at the core of almost every male relationship in the film – with Moriarty also providing Sal with something of a muse for the book he ends the film writing.
Hedlund’s purpose as Moriarty within the film is that of a bright charismatic sun that the other characters orbit around, a driving force and an exciting guy to be around. Anyone who has witnessed the charisma vacuum that is his performance in TRON: Legacy will be unsurprised to learn that he does not rise particularly well to the challenge here, with a broad smile filling in where a more charismatic and entertaining performance should be. He is not without charm at times though and this is certainly an improvement over that previous effort.
Riley as Sal, the protagonist of the piece and our narrator, plays the part with curiosity and an understated intensity at times but it is hard too truly believe the character on screen, his performance often too mannered, a lack of naturalism only adding to the sense of distance throughout.
Kristen Stewart as Marylou completes the awkward threesome for a large part of the film and whilst there is little for her to do here she also makes very little out of what she has to work with. Married to and divorced by Moriarty, Marylou is emotionally mistreated by him from the outset but there is the sense that she is happy to be along for the ride. Without any sense that Moriarty is an engaging character though we are left struggling to see why. Sex appears to be one simplistic answer, with many overheard screams of pleasure informing us that Moriarty seems to know how to please his many lovers, but for all the sex and flashes of nudity, On the Road is mostly devoid of chemistry and sexual energy. An early scene in which Moriarty and Marylou dance, sweating and writhing together, falls a little flat, despite clearly being intended as an introduction of sorts to this erotically charged and fiery relationship.
Ultimately it is in this lack of sparks from the relationships, and the film’s script in general, that leaves one a little detached and unaffected walking away from the cinema.
Salles has a wonderful talent for finding the beauty in shots and there are times when the film is incredibly pleasing to the eye, whether it be in the warm glow of magic hour or the cold white of a snowy road, but there is sadly little to be found beyond the aesthetic delights and one is mostly left adrift throughout, much like the characters, searching for some sort of purpose or emotion to hold onto.