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After decades of stopping and starting, attempted productions that included talents such as Francis Ford Coppola and Marlon Brando, Jack Kerouac’s definitive Beat novel On The Road has finally been brought to the screen through the caring hands of director Walter Salles and writer Jose Rivera. The two seemed to be the perfect modern pair to take on this hefty challenge, selected for the task after their praised work together on the Che Guevera road picture The Motorcycle Diaries, which netted Rivera an Oscar nomination for his screenplay. Here they take on another journey of the body and soul, one that has seen countless others attempt and fail to figure out some way to make a film out of a novel long claimed unfilmable.

Proving the naysayers dead wrong, On The Road is a marvelous picture, as Salles is able to keep Keroauc’s spirit well in tact while translating the narrative-free odyssey into a film that is easy to digest, even for audiences unfamiliar with the source material. The young Sal Paradise is our lead, a representation of the author who is played here by Sam Riley, whose life is turned around when he meets the absorbing figure that is Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund). These two collide with one another in a way that will forever alter Paradise, and they eventually set out on the road while meeting lovers, kindred spirits and plenty of the Beat generations’ most notorious names.

A lot of the trouble with adapting something as free in structure as On The Road is going to come from managing a pace that works, and one of the most impressive aspects of the film is how Salles is able to achieve this. Something like this, which doesn’t have any kind of traditional narrative structure and is built to be open and meandering, will always have a high risk of dragging painfully in parts. Salles and Rivera keep it all open and doesn’t force any kind of one-two-three arc into the script, yet it never slows down for a moment.

The director is able to keep it all loose, but what’s important is that it never feels like he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Thecharacters and their journey are aimless, drifting spirits but the film itself never feels lost or lacking in control. This is an almost impossible ability for a director to harness, yet Salles is fully aware of every step he takes with them and I never felt like we weren’t seeing something essential to this story. The essence of the Beat lifestyle is nailed to perfection, without ever feeling too self-important or straying too far away from itself. It’s easy to create a film that has no direction; the difficult task is making one with direction about characters who have none. I was glued to these people the whole time, and when it was over I just wanted more of them.

More under the cut …

Salles deserves a lot of the credit here, but On The Road wouldn’t have worked nearly as well without a primary cast that were able to help capture the spirit of this generation of young artists and wanderers. Sam Riley is an able lead, though his character serves much more as an observer than anything else. The star of the show, and the one who appropriately steals the spotlight, is Garrett Hedlund, finally emerging as the hot property that he seems to destined to become. As Paradise discovers immediately, the whole world is drawn to Dean Moriarty and when we meet him, so are we.

Over time, the layers are pulled back and he is exposed as a destructive force, a man whose selfishness and inability to see the consequences of his actions can lead to massive pain on others, yet the great trick in Hedlund’s portrayal is the kind of sympathy he can bring to the role. On paper, Moriarty could easily have been a character to loathe, but Hedlund turns him into one of the most achingly tragic figures I’ve seen in quite some time. You want to ride this wave with him when he is basking in his freedom and charisma, but in the quieter moments where Hedlund expresses the anguish, the loneliness and the guilt of living such a life, your heart breaks to pieces.

The supporting cast is lined up with name actors who do very fine work in small roles, highlights coming in the form of Viggo Mortensen as the William S. Burroughs surrogate, Kirsten Dunst as one of Moriarty’s scorned lovers, and Amy Adams, giving a performance very far removed from her usual routine. Special note should be given as well to Tom Sturridge, a relative newcomer cast in the Allen Ginsberg role of Carlo Marx, who brings just the right amount of nagging insecurity to make you feel for him without being dreadfully annoying.

On The Road follows in the lines of the great films that have been adapted from “unfilmable” novels, like David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, as Walter Salles is wisely able to make it a piece as personal to him as it was to Jack Kerouac. He adds his own unique style to the picture, making it appropriate for translating the novel without losing the kind of essence required to capture the lifestyle of this young and aimless generation. With a shockingly impressive pace that never loses you or feels too mannered, Salles combines once again with writer Jose Rivera to bring this work to the screen in tremendous fashion. This is an open road, but one that still feels like a journey to somewhere in your soul, as opposed to a lost trip to nowhere.


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