At one point in “On the Road,” the new film version of the famous Jack Kerouac novel, a character says, “Bless me father for I will sin.” Many of the fans of the book may take that line as a mea culpa from director Walter Salles, who has dared to bring a novel long thought to be unfilmable to the screen. Beatnik purists need not worry. There are sins on display, just none of the cinematic kind.
Proto beats Dean and Sal (Garrett Hedlund and Sam Riley) spit in the eye of authority and embark on an existential search for self on the self-awareness, friendship and the “rainy night of America.” Along the way jazz happens, the discovery of the “joy of pure being” is revealed to be fleeting, and the central question, How are we to live? goes unanswered.
“On the Road,” the novel and movie, isn’t a piece of art to be explained, it needs to be experienced. The film, like the book is uneventful—nothing resembling an actual story actually happens—but both reverberate with the pulse of be bop jazz. Salles has created a movie populated by fascinating characters played by good actors who live in rhythm to the freeform structure of the story.
It’s a road trip that sees people come and go, relationships formed and broken and hearts broken. At the center of it all are two souls, Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise (Kerouac’s pseudonym ion the book), bound together by friendship and restless spirits.
Dean is described as someone who spent 1/3 of his time in jail, 1/3 in pool halls and a 1/3 in public libraries. He’s one of the towering characters of American literature and is brought to vivid life by Garrett Hedlund. A charming rascal, he’s deeply self-involved, a hip cat but in reality, the most desperate character in the bunch.
Refusing to take responsibility for himself or his actions he’s the bad boy your mom warned you about and Hedlund embodies it.
But as good as Hedlund is, the movie belongs to Sam Riley, the English actor most distinguished for playing Ian Curtis in the film “Control,” the biopic about the lead singer of Joy Division, is the beating heart of the movie.
Supporting characters come and go. Viggo Mortensen brings edge to his brief portrayal Old Bull Lee (a thinly disguised William S. Burroughs). Kirsten Dunst is shows the deep ache of jilted Camille and Kristen Stewart plays lovesick Marylou as a strong, but vulnerable victim of Dean’s charm.
Some will find ”On the Road” aimless, others will be swept along by its ride, the beautiful photography and the search for meaning.