Whether audiences have wanted it or not, the Beat Generation has come storming back to the movies in the past year. Though focusing on different portions of their lives, both “On the Road” and “Kill Your Darlings” reveled in the freedom of jazz, the heady highs of drugs and the pursuit of pure experience this band of writers strove for. The films embraced the myth of its subjects, detailing the incidents, pains and pleasures that turned them into a force that would define an era. But what happens when those dreams of a transformed America don’t pan out? What are you left with when the poetry on the page cannot overcome your own uncertainty? These are questions that face Jack Kerouac in Michael Polish‘s adaptation of “Big Sur,” a film about the Beats that refuses nostalgia and easy answers, and is a much more fascinating, satisfying picture than its competition as a result.
In this film, Kerouac isn’t played by a sexy young actor with hunky features, but rather by Jean-Marc Barr, who presents the writer as weathered and weary, his face a canvas of barely contained despair. As he watches himself on “The Steve Allen Show,” he can barely recognize the writer at the center of so much acclaim. “All over America high school and college kids are thinking Jack Kerouac is 26 years old and on the road hitchhiking, while there I am, almost 40 years old, bored and jaded,” he would write. Though he’s surrounded a by a loose coterie of supporters—Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Anthony Edwards), Neal Cassady (Josh Lucas) and his lover Billie (Kate Bosworth) among others—Kerouac’s constant companion is the bottle. His own struggle with defining his identity in the wake of his success is destructively fueled by drink, and what emerges is portrait of a slow spiral of a man who no longer is sure of his place in the world.
So to try and find and fix himself, he heads to the titular Big Sur, shacking up in Lawrence’s cabin with the film’s very loose, unstructured narrative anchored by three journeys into the woods. Polish doesn’t waste a single second, teaming with cinematographer M. David Mullen to capture the truly gorgeous surroundings Kerouac tries to reorient himself in. Ancient trees tower into the sky, as painterly sunlight pierces through the leaves. The ocean never ceases crashing upon the shore, while the undergrowth on the forest floor continues unfettered by the intrusion of Kerouac and his rotating gallery of pals. But there is a point to Polish’s emphasis on the outdoors; it further dwarfs an already fragile Kerouac, underscoring the writer’s fading belief in his own importance.
Any film tackling the Beats has to overcome the fundamental difficulty of trying to bring to life the energetic verve of the words that are already on the page. And as we’ve seen in the aforementioned films, this is usually attempted by no shortage of scenes leaning on wild living and supposedly inspirational moments. But in “Big Sur,” Polish rightly realizes there is little he can do to spice up what’s already there, so he lets Kerouac’s writing speak for itself. And in an even bolder gamble, the movie is dominated almost entirely by voiceover. But the director’s eye for visuals, paired with a restrained performance from Barr that seems to understand every moment and every word, creates a truly authentic-feeling evocation of Kerouac’s writing and character.
Infused with an anti-romantic perspective, Polish isn’t critical of the Beat generation, he just refuses to be awed by the legendary status, and in doing so, he achieves an intriguingly complex portrait of a man who uncomfortably stands outside of his accomplishments. Moreover, running at just over 70 minutes, Polish’s film (even with a somewhat jarringly rushed finale) plays almost like the kind of jazz that so dizzied a young Kerouac. “Big Sur” rises and fades, shifts and moves, through movements and melodies, singing a beautifully sad song for an era and a man who lost his way. [B]