Few books have been as influential and enduring as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the voice of the beat generation, set in the late 1940s and early ’50s. Filmmakers have circled this project for years, but it’s taken the gifted Brazilian director Walter Salles and Jose Rivera, his screenwriting partner from The Motorcycle Diaries, to bring it to fruition. I can’t call it an unqualified success—it’s long and uneven—but it has good qualities and some moving vignettes.
Sam Riley plays Sal, an aspiring writer who is drawn into the orbit of a charismatic drifter named Dean (Garrett Hedlund). Dean is the kind of guy who attracts both men and women, even though he doesn’t treat them well—especially the women. He is also consumed by wanderlust, which leads the two men and their traveling companion (Kristen Stewart) on a series of adventures around the country and across the border in Mexico.
Salles tries to capture the immediacy and spontaneous nature of the book, using long takes and even allowing the camera to drift out of focus when a character moves about. Prominent actors (Amy Adams, Steve Buscemi, Viggo Mortensen, Terrence Howard) turn up at unexpected moments, playing characters our protagonists meet, only briefly, in their travels. But the movie’s real strength is in evoking the feel of the road in a now-vanished America. If there were an award for location scouting, along with production design, this film would be a prime candidate.
The cast also serves Salles well. Hedlund has the magnetism to bring Dean (based on the real-life Neal Cassady) to life, and help us understand why people are drawn to him. Riley is also quite good as Sal, the Kerouac figure who lives in Queens, New York with his immigrant mother. The nicest surprise is Stewart, who gives a fresh, unmannered performance as Marylou (inspired by the real-life LuAnne Henderson), who throws in with these two urban nomads as they head off for adventure—with Sal hoping the experience will help fire his nascent writing career.
Whatever its vicissitudes, On the Road has one important asset: a great ending. The poignant finale to a vital relationship is beautifully staged and acted.
Unfortunately, I don’t think On the Road the movie will have nearly the impact of the book that inspired it. Perhaps, like many other literary milestones, it was never meant to be a film.