American writer Jack Kerouac’s 1957 book ‘On the Road’, his autobiographical odyssey of cross-country misbehaviour, is such a cultural milestone that it’s long been eyed-up by filmmakers. But the novel’s sketchy story (they drive, take drugs, fool around, drive some more) has always been a stumbling block. And nothing dates so fast as yesterday’s youthquake, so maybe the 55-year wait isn’t such a mystery.
Neither is it surprising that the Brazilian director Walter Salles is finally the one to crack it: he has form, shaping Che Guevara’s youthful writings into ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ (2004). Salles performs a similar trick here by pouring hot young actors into beautifully realised period reconstructions.
What Salles doesn’t do is conjure up a new story. So ‘On the Road’ is still an episodic catalogue of comings and goings. We follow budding writer Sal (Kerouac’s alter ego, played by Sam Riley) in the company of his livewire buddy Dean (Garrett Hedlund, channelling Neal Cassady). The former plays frustrated observer while the latter dallies with women (including Kirsten Dunst and Kristen Stewart). Writerly cameos are also part of the fun – Viggo Mortensen is deliciously cranky as ‘Bill Lee’, doubling for William Burroughs. But the heart of the matter is what’s going on between Sal and seductive yet irresponsible Dean. Does the wordsmith want to shag him? Or be him?
Salles refuses to turn the men’s conflicted relationship into melodrama. Or to shock us. So some viewers might be left desiring a tad more heat and fire. Instead, Salles trusts our instincts to pick up on looks and glances, and the performances deliver on this front. Riley subtly calibrates Sal’s unquiet yearning, and Hedlund is all smiley brio as reckless party monster Dean.
Freewheeling spontaneity is tough to convey on screen, and the drink- and drug-fuelled carousing lacks Danny Boyle-style zing. But the bull-nosed cars, jazz soundtrack and soft light of a bygone era are a joy. If you’ve got a feel for vintage Americana, or the bebop pulse of Kerouac’s prose, you’ll absolutely get this.