At the time of my viewing of “On The Road”, it was a special film for me at this year’s MIFF because it was to be the only film my wife was able to attend with me. The reason for her attendance was the star of her “Twilight” franchise, Kristen Stewart, plays one of the main roles in “On The Road”. Until viewing this film, I was totally unaware of “On The Road” but apparently it was a book, written by Jack Kerouac, that captured a generation. People who lived through that time period (the late 40’s to early 50’s) felt it best represented them all. It had always been thought impossible to make into a movie and many have tried (Francis Ford Coppola tried for decades to get it made) but it has never happened until now.
Due to the autobiographical nature of Kerouac’s book and the fact that it was written about his and his friends adventures while struggling with writer’s block and looking for inspiration, “On The Road” has less of a traditional plot than a regular movie, rather we seem to follow two characters, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty (who stand in for the real life Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady), who form a friendship back in the late 1940’s. We watch them as they connect and reconnect with each other through the years along with a group of other friends as they begin the beatnik generation. The boys are what you call intellectuals – poets, writers and philosophers and they like to live on the edge, actually living and feeling life, so there is some depth and truth in what they are writing about.
Along the way of their on and off journey on the road, we meet a lot of interesting characters as they cross paths with Sal and Dean, however there are a couple of friends that remain constants throughout. The biggest of them is Marylou, who is Dean’s first wife, and even after the two have divorced one another, they still spend the majority of their time together, usually in bed. Dean’s long suffering second wife Camille is rarely there in person but exists constantly in the mind of Dean as a reminder of the kind of life he is trying to escape, or the responsibility of that life. When money dries up or he is tired of life on the road, Dean eventually returns to Camille and his kids, but they all know that it is temporary and it will not be long before he is off again. The other friend is Carlo Marx, the boy’s gay friend from back home who seems to have a crush on Dean and whose one dream in life is to write one great poem before he turns the age of 23.
While on this journey of life, Sal is forever writing his experiences in his notebook, kind of like research for the book he plans to eventually write. The boy’s travels lead them all across America from Denver to New York to even Mexico just to experience new things and to live life. As time goes on, some of them grow up and change as the world changes, while others stay stuck in the good times of their youth, destined to become a failure.
Because “On The Road” has little plot or narrative, it is a film that you feel or experience rather than watch, so atmosphere is very important. Personally I feel that director Walter Salles has captured the time period perfectly and has infused the film with an atmosphere that makes it easy to understand the appeal of this kind of lifestyle.
Performances from the three leads, Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund and Kristen Stewart, are all fantastic and very natural but it has been Hedlund that has been getting the majority of buzz for his performance as Dean Moriarty and I have to agree, he is amazing and fearless. He totally inhabits this character and isn’t afraid to expose both his good and bad traits, making him very charismatic and it easy to see why everyone would follow this guy. Hedlund doesn’t miss a step while characterizing Dean during his downfall either, making it a truly rounded and layered performance. I think Kristen Stewart is also going to turn a lot of heads with her performance as Marylou, and not just because of the nudity associated with it. She is fantastic and the role is unlike anything she has done before. For the naysayers that believe she only has one expression, they are certainly in for a surprise. In regards to Sam Riley, who plays Sal Paradise, I’ve read middling reviews of his performance but I actually thought he was quite convincing in the role. He had a nice screen presence which always made it enjoyable to be in the company of Sal. A number of big name actors appear in bit roles throughout “On The Road” and I thought that their inclusions were a bit hit and miss. I thought that Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams and Steve Buscemi were all excellent, but the usually brilliant Viggo Mortensen felt totally wrong here, and I seriously disliked the scenes he was in.
For quite a long film, Walter Salles does a great job of keeping the momentum going throughout the entire running time. While there are a few slow patches, for a film as episodic as this, they have done a remarkable job at keeping this to a minimum and keeping the quality of the film consistent which is quite an achievement.
Without a doubt the best thing about “On The Road” is its stunning cinematography by Eric Gautier. Every single frame of this film was seriously gorgeous with images bathed in beautiful soft light. So many times my mouth was left agape by the beauty created on screen. This is easily the best looking film I saw at MIFF this year and it isn’t even close. Image after image was amazing whether it was a scene set in direct sunlight, hidden in the shadows of the night or covered in snow, “On The Road” is a phenomenally beautiful film to look at.
With the rather negative reviews “On The Road” has been receiving since its debut in Cannes this year, I must admit that I was bracing myself for a long night in the cinema, but I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the film. Full of fantastic performances and an authentic look at the beatnik era of the early 50’s, “On The Road” is highly recommended.