Judge Gordon Sullivan wrote this review as one long sentence on a scroll—in crayon.
The best teacher is experience
Two posthumous bits of Kerouacian literature appeared in 2007. The less interesting one was a fiftieth anniversary edition of On the Road. The vast majority of books released each year go out of print within the decade, so fifty years of continuous publication is pretty impressive. More significant was the release of On the Road: The Original Scroll. Kerouac typed his masterpiece in a single, uninterrupted paragraph that he taped together to form a scroll that was 120 feet in length. That's trivial, though, compared to the real treasure that the scroll contains: all of the sex that was considered too risqué for 1957 and all of the names of Kerouac's friends before they were changed to hide the guilty (and avoid lawsuits). Now fans could enjoy On the Road as Kerouac put it down, and with all the real-life titillation intact. It would take another half-dozen years for Kerouac's book to make it to the big screen despite decades of desire on the part of various filmmakers. Though it's a wonderful showcase for a great cast, On the Road captures little of Kerouac's freedom.
Facts of the Case
Now that the scroll has been published, I can stick to real names for this review. Jack Kerouac (Sam Riley, Control) is a writer who's drawn to a cross-country road trip with Neal Cassady (Garrett Hedlund, Tron: Legacy). Along the way the pair meet a number of crazy characters, including LuAnne Henderson (Kristen Stewart, Twilight) and William S. Burroughs (Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises).
Though his early death prevented a true reckoning of his feelings, Kerouac was (at least at the end of his life) a Catholic living with his third wife and his mother, and actively hostile to the hippie movement that had grown out of his work with fellow Beats like Ginsberg and Burroughs. Personally, I've always found these other beats much more compelling that Kerouac for a variety of reasons. However, what I've always appreciated about Keroauc, and what makes him the ultimate Beat writer in some ways, is that he was on the outside desperately wanting to get into something. Whether it was the free-spiritedness of Neal Cassidy or the bisexuality of Ginsberg, Kerouac always seemed ready to pick up a new life but never able to commit. This gives his prose a tension that gives his best work—On the Road included—the power to last for fifty years and more.
Sadly, it's exactly this tension that On the Road lacks. Though there is a bit of contrast here—some scenes crackle with energy while some are much more staid—there's nothing of the reckless abandon that Kerouac's prose captures. In fact, one of the points of his writing is precisely that even mundane things—drinking wine under the stars—can be liberating if properly captured. In contrast, On the Road offers artful, studied compositions even in the midst of its most outlandish scenes. Take, for instance, the famous nude threesome with Kristen Stewart in the car. Despite the fact that all three actors are naked, and Stewart's LuAnne is manually stimulating both her fellow passengers, the camera first stays outside the car, watching the trio from the hood. Then we cut to a shot behind them as she does her thing. Then another shot of the landscape as the car races across the desert. They could be debating the Eisenhower presidency for all the thrill the scene gives us visually. It's that lack of energy that makes the film less than it could be.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Of course the lack of visual energy is made more unfortunate because the cast behind On the Road is pretty impressive. Sam Riley played an excellent Ian Curtis in Control and his Kerouac shows his range, offering a warm and sympathetic wanderer. Hedlund is charming as Cassady, but it's some of the smaller players who shine the most. Kristen Stewart can forever banish all accusation of being a one-note actress with her turn here, which is full of all the fire and energy one wishes the whole film possessed. I'd like to see a sequel that focused on Amy Adams and Viggo Mortensen as Burroughs and his wife Jean Vollmer. That's a story that hasn't really been told effectively, but these two embody the doomed writer and his more-doomed wife perfectly. Having Elisabeth Moss and Steve Buscemi show up is just icing on the cake.
The film also deserves some credit for rewriting history a bit. Kerouac seemed to show no compunction about using and abusing the women in his life, leaving them at home while he roamed or taking money from them to fund his adventures. This version of On the Road makes clear the price these women paid for falling for Kerouac, especially Kirsten Dunst as second wife Carolyn.
Shot on 35mm, the film looks pretty great with this 2.40:1/1080p AVC-encoded On The Road (Blu-ray) transfer. Detail is generally strong, with well-saturated colors and good blacks. There's a bit of compression artefacting going on in some scenes, but overall this is a decently filmlike transfer. The DTS-HD 5.1 track is even more impressive. Dialogue is clean and clear, but it's the strains of jazz that really sell this track. Surrounds get a lot of workout for a dialogue-driven drama, offering ambience in most scenes that really add to the film's evocation of a bygone era. We get eight minutes of deleted scenes and the film's trailer as the extras.
It's amazing that it took over fifty years to get On the Road to the silver screen. As a novel that keeps being adopted with every successive generation, it feels like a story that should perhaps be retold and re-imagined on celluloid every few years. If I knew that was the case, I'd feel more compassion for this version, which captures some of the characters of Kerouac's famous journey while missing much of the essential energy. Fans of the novel will want to check it out, and those interested in the actors or the character they're portraying will find something to appreciate here.
Could have been better, but On the Road is not guilty.
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