Cinema Review: On the Road

DIR: Walter Salles • WRI: Jose Rivera • PRO: Charles Gillibert, Nathanaël Karmitz • DOP: Eric Gautier • ED: François Gédigier • DES: Carlos Conti • Cast: Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, Viggo Mortensen

Based on the novel by Jack Kerouac of the same name, On the Road is the story of young writer Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) and his tumultuous relationship with Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund).

Sal is first introduced to Dean by a friend in New York in 1947, Dean having moved there with his new bride Mary Lou (Kristen Stewart). He is taken by Dean’s free-spirited craving for all that life has to offer and the two form an immediate bond. Soon after Dean tells of his plans to move back to Denver with his wife and a mutual friend Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge). Sal remains in New York, trying and failing to write a novel, until he receives a drunken letter telling him to ‘bring Paradise to Denver’. Carrying his worldly possessions on his back Sal heads to Denver and from there starts a voyage that will bring him to California, New Mexico, back to New York and a host of places in between.

For a film with ‘Road’ in the title the road features as a comparatively small element. Granted, the main characters are based in a number of cities throughout and there is some travel but it merely serves as a tool for some aesthetically pleasing, but otherwise pointless, tracking shots. The characters themselves, with the exception of Sal, rarely develop during the time they spend travelling together. The same can be said for their relationships. Even in the case of the protagonist, it is only when they are stationary that they get the chance to indulge their hedonism and converse. Hedonism, it should be noted, is the name of the game.

At the beginning of the story Sal has just recovered from a mysterious illness that he advises us was related to the death of his father. He sees in Dean the vibrancy he is lacking and seeks to feed off it just as Dean, the felon and con-man, wants to feed off Sal. It is here that we find one of the central flaws. Dean is portrayed as a rogue and a charmer but we as the audience are never convinced of him being anything more than a selfish user. A few cheap laughs are to be had when Dean goes to bed with a girl that he had apparently found for one of his cohorts but his actions in these instances are display his personality in microcosm.

Sal protests at one point that Dean ‘gives people a good time just by being himself’ but he is more accurately summed up by a mentor of Sal’s. Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen) describes him as ‘feeling no responsibility towards others’ while ‘feeling others have a responsibility to support him’. Even in moments of vulnerability he quickly reverts to talking about sexual conquest. We are left wondering why people would choose to ally themselves to such as Dean for anything beyond the hedonistic, but ultimately self-destructive, lifestyle that he can offer.

The on-screen chemistry between Riley, Hedlund and Sturridge is palpable, although a number of other characters appear secondary at best. It is perhaps telling of the relationships in the film that the most enjoyable sections are when Riley’s Sal is travelling alone and in the encounters he has during those parts of his journey.

While On the Road may have benefited from a shortening of its 124-minute run-time, the episodic narrative and an excellent performance from Riley show us the America that was. Something that is worth seeing for yourself.

Paddy Delaney

Rated 16 (see IFCO website for details)
124 mins

On the Road is released on 12th October 2012

On the Road   –  Official Website


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