Filmmakers have been trying for six decades to film Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and the one who finally did it, Walter Salles, probably comes as close to capturing the book as possible.
I should acknowledge that I'm not a fan of the book; I get that it takes place inside the head of its selfish narrator, but I can't get past its carelessness and misogyny.
Salles' movie, however, like TV's Mad Men, walks a line between accurately depicting an era and underscoring the tremendous divide between that era and our own. So road-tripping Sal (Sam Riley) and Dean (Garrett Hedlund) are still pigs who think as much about the women in their lives, including Kristen Stewart's randy Marylou, as they do about where their next fix will come from. But we're also aware that the rootless lifestyle they thought was free and revolutionary was really just another cage.
Salles' film reminds me of John Huston's glorious The Dead in its respect for the free-flowing nature of the source material. Salles doesn't attempt to impose a structure on the episodic Road, which follows the boys on several road trips across the United States with lengthy gaps in between. Obviously, he made all the decisions here, but Salles creates the illusion that he's just following the material, seeing where it will lead him.
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As a result, On the Road is more a movie of moments than a satisfying whole. There are indelible cameos from an angry Elisabeth Moss, a free-spirited Amy Adams and a befuddling Viggo Mortensen. The post-World War II period is lovingly evoked, and there are vivid images, including many thrilling shots of Sal's car speeding down deserted highways.
The one area in which the distance of 60 years allows Salles more freedom is in the homoerotic subtext of On the Road, which comes to the fore here. Did Sal and Dean treat women so badly because they couldn't face their attraction to each other? That's at least hinted at throughout the film, and in the shatteringly beautiful finale, it feels like even more than a hint.
'On the Road'
R for strong sexual content, drug use and language. IFC/Sundance Selects. 2:04. Kentucky.