Cannes 2012: On the Road
Walter Salles’ adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s classic novel struggles to capture a sense of the times
If, for two and a half hours, you can put aside the fact that Walter Salles’ (Central Station, The Motorcycle Diaries) latest work is an adaptation of one of the most famous, influential books in recent American history, you might just enjoy this winding, intimate tale of a group of liberated friends riding across the United States. Handsomely shot in dusty yellows and browns of late 40s/early fifties America and with fine performances from Sam Riley (as Sal Paradise), Kirsten Dunst (Camille) and Kristen Stewart (Marylou), Salles’ On the Road falters only in its ability to capture the significance of its source material.
Jack Kerouac’s book, first published in 1957 documented the antics of a cast of remarkable characters inspired by the beat generation’s leading lights: Sal Paradise is Kerouac himself, Dean Moriarity is Neal Cassady, Carlo Marx is Allen Ginsberg and Old Bull Lee, William Burroughs. Yet for a work that challenged the social norms of the time this adaptation is surprisingly conventional in approach. Apart from the occasional police-issued parking ticket there is little sense here of the world beyond this circle of friends, a world before the civil rights movement and where McCarthyism was beginning to grip. And without this context it’s difficult to gain an appreciation of just how unique this group were and the impact their writing would go on to have.
Sadly Garrett Hedlund never quite captures the frenetic energy and emotional volatility of Dean Moriarty, the story’s enigmatic antihero, but there are several excellent cameos - both Viggo Mortensen and Amy Adams are inspired choices as Old Bull Lee and his wife Jane. But what is really missing is the energy and rhythm that so defined the works of the beat generation. What we’re left with is a pleasant story of a group of friends on a road trip, not the captivating, liberating spirit of Kerouac’s classic.
On the Road screened at Cannes Film Festival 2012.