On the Road
When "On The Road" became a literary sensation in the 1950s, its author -- Jack Kerouac -- wanted to co-star in a film version opposite Marlon Brando. That never came to pass, but the casting of Brando as Dean Moriarty would have been ideal. Sexy, charismatic and more than a bit wild, Moriarty (a character loosely based on the real-life Neal Cassady) epitomized the 1950s rebel without a cause (save getting high and getting laid) that was key to Brando’s appeal.
In fact, it took some 50 years for Kerouac’s novel -- a thinly-veiled account of his travels across the U.S. in the late 1940s with Cassady -- to make it to the screen, despite attempts by Francis Ford Coppola (who bought rights to the novel in the early 1970s). Part of the problem is that Kerouac’s episodic narrative appeared to stymie screenwriters. It wasn’t until Coppola saw Brazilian director Walter Salles’ "The Motorcycle Diaries" that he found a filmmaker he felt could capture Kerouac’s elusive, stream-of-consciousness prose. (Kerouac wrote the book in three weeks on a continuous roll of newsprint.)
This film, directed by Salles from a script by José Rivera, turns out to be a worthy adaptation, largely due to British actor Garrett Hedlund’s compelling turn as Moriarty. There’s little wonder why the characters -- both male and female -- fall in love with him. Hedlund has just the right blend of narcissistic bravado and self-effacing humility to make him irresistible to all, most significantly Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), with whom he travels across America in what appears to be a five-year booze-and-pot driven revel.
They meet a variety of women along the way, most noticeably two played by Kirsten Dunst (emotionally volatile) and Kristen Stewart (intense, eccentric), but it is the relationship between these men that drive the film. Riley has a brooding, introverted presence as Kerouac’s alter-ego, which adds to the smoldering tension that builds to an emotionally devastating conclusion. Additionally Viggo Mortensen offers a memorable turn as an eccentric writer based on William S. Burroughs, and Tom Sturridge gives an amusing, if fleeting, impersonation of the young Allen Ginsberg.
The film’s episodic nature is likely why the film was cut by nearly a half-hour after its 2012 Cannes premiere for its U.S. release early this year. No doubt those cut scenes are part of the Blu-ray’s special features (along with the trailer). It’s too bad that there isn’t more in terms of supplemental material, considering the richness of its source; but this quiet, remarkably beautiful movie evokes Kerouac’s iconic story with intelligence and lyricism.