Over the decades, if not instantly after the book's publication, "On The Road" has been lionized as a canon of wild life; it is, after all, the lightning rod for the Beat Generation, pulling together an emerging bebop jazz scene, reckless youth and casual sexual encounters.
The driving force of that story is a tale of zipping madly across America with heathen abandon. But also at its churning center is a buddy-buddy story between Sal (a stand-in for author Jack Kerouac) a New York mama's boy, and Dean Moriarty (aka Neal Cassidy), a West Coast roustabout—and, in particular, Sal's fawning adulation for Dean's ability to live without restrictions, both moral and physical, as he consumes everything in his path—booze, drugs, jazz, women, men.
But what that simple reading misses—and what the new film adaptation thankfully and delicately captures—is that the story wasn't so much celebrating free-wheeling wild times as it was documenting postwar economic restlessness, and the subtle but uneasy socioeconomic, gender and racial tensions. Without judgment, Walter Salles (director, The Motorcycle Diaries) moves between wild drug-infused scenes and heart-twisting moments that show the dark yin to living without responsibilities.
Oh sure, there are ribald scenes—mad nights at jazz clubs captured with quick edits and tilting camera angles, and orgies that were so explicit that editors in the '50s cut them from the book, are gladly included here. But for anyone expecting an Oliver Stone treatment glorifying sex, drugs and speed, Salles takes the high road.
It is a beautiful movie. The cinematography is spellbinding, both with its epic sweeps of Sal and Dean darting across American landscapes, and with documentary-style close-ups. And, it is also a nuanced film, which may be its downfall. Like the dynamically produced Howl two years ago (starring James Franco), it is likely that On the Road will be left on the roadside because it does not simply nestle into the passenger seat for the wild ride, but instead chooses to prod and question.
On the Road
Dir. Walter Salles; Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart