On the Road is a sprawling, messy journey

Steve Dinneen
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On the Road
By Steve Dinneen

Filming a book as iconic as On the Road is no mean task – especially after 55 years have elapsed. In the event, director Walter Salles captures some of the atmosphere but little of the spirit of Kerouac’s novel, leaving me with a nagging feeling that the point had somehow passed me by.

Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera’s take on the Beatnik bible tells the tale of the magnetic, sociopathic Moriarty – a man whose egotism and emptiness (and all-American good looks) cause anyone he meets to fall into an adoring orbit around him – through the eyes of young wannabe-writer Sal Paradise.

But Salles’ Moriarty (played by Garrett Hedlund) isn’t quite such an evil sod as the character he’s based on, lacking the vicious, Begbie-like unpredictability of the novel-Moriarty. Instead Salles focuses on Moriarty’s insatiable sex-drive. The first time we see him, he’s butt-naked, in a state of priapic excitement following a noisy session (of which there are many) with his young bride Marylou. Moriarty sleeps with girls. He sleeps with boys. He sleeps with them both at the same time, if he can. I felt knackered just watching him.

In contrast to the novel, Hedlund’s pretty-boy looks are rarely off-screen; so much so that he is conspicuous by his very presence. Throughout swathes of the novel, his absence is almost a character in its own right; like a black hole that continues its destruction long after the star has imploded. If he was played with weight and menace, this would make sense, but Hedlund’s Moriarty is sad, rather than despairing – his muttery drawl often brought to mind AA Milne’s eeyore, which was presumably not the intention.

Sal, Kerouac’s insipid hero, gets the opposite treatment – he’s more rounded, more decisive, examining life rather than being swept through it, less of a passenger (in all senses of the word).

The softening of one central character and hardening of the other makes On the Road feel more like a buddy-movie than a bleak commentary on the Beat Generation and the American psyche.

The most captivating turn comes from Kristen Stewart as Marylou. Without really speaking, she paints a picture of shattered innocence; beautiful, broken, high but hollowed out by Dean’s destructive presence. If this was the movie Stewart hoped to grow up in, she can count it a success.

On the Road is never less than visually stunning, shot in grainy film stock, with endless images of the road reflected in the windshield of the stolen Hudson Dean races across the country. The scenes shot in Mexico are especially evocative of the pull of the open road.

But like an American super-highway, the movie feels like it goes on forever – the conclusion always receding into the distance (and this version has been trimmed by 15 minutes). It’s a long, sprawling, messy ride – but than that's kind of the point. The problem is, scenery apart, I left feeling like it had been a bit of a wasted journey.