This morning’s Competition entry here in Cannes is one of the festival’s key players, but also a picture approached by many with a staggering amount of trepidation. Brazilian director Walter Salles helms On The Road – a supposedly ‘unadaptable’ adaptation of the famous Jack Kerouac novel. Having not read the book, concerns about whether the picture would or wouldn’t work didn’t particularly phase me, but it seems the masses were a bit edged at the idea.
After the passing of his father, aspiring and struggling writer Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) embarks on a cross-country tour of the United States during the 1940s with his close friend and figure of admiration, Dean Moriarty (Garret Hedlund). Moriarty has recently married the beautiful and free-spirited Marylou (Kristen Stewart) who also joins their road trip. The group set out to find themselves, explore life’s possibilities and thrive in the hypnotic Beat culture that surrounds them.
On The Road is the longest film I’ve seen at this year’s festival, clocking in at 137 minutes, and during that running time we get a slightly mixed bag; so let’s start with the good.
Salles’ latest is an unashamedly beautiful spectacle; each and every frame is rendered and coloured to sheer perfection – the film has that sun-soaked, sand-dusted tonal age which illuminates on-screen and is so delicately crafted and constructed. On The Road also wonderfully captures its era with its score, scenery, dialogue and costume; everything culminates to make a staggeringly handsome and historically accurate portrait of all-American Beat living in the late 40s/early 50s. Nowadays, it can be a tough challenge to totally transport audiences back in time, but Salles’ adaptation really embedded the years and times upon me.
Also good are the performances – it’s so hard to believe that the Garret Hedlund here is the same bloke from Tron: Legacy; talk about a cinematic transformation. Dean is a character overly idolised by the impressionable Sal and indeed by those who come in contact with him. He possesses a somewhat desirable lifestyle to many, yet he is laden with infinite sadness and stacking ill-fate which is shaded by his confident, care-free exterior. Hedlund’s demanding and layered lead performance is nothing short of fabulous and watching him shake away those lightcycle demons is beyond pleasing.
Stewart is also fantastic here, giving the type of performances she thrives with, which are often overshadowed by her Twilight alter-ego. In fact, she’s probably the strongest out of the three; her Marylou rings of her role as Em in Adventureland which is perhaps her most established and confident screen-turn in a major release. One has always defended Stewart’s abilities and many-a-critic have been biting their lips after watching her in On The Road today. Riley’s Sal takes a little getting used to as the whole ‘puppy dog’ affection for Dean starts out as a little too homoerotic but actually he forms and builds into a character much more emotionally rich and three-dimensional.
So far so good right? Well here’s what’s wrong with Salles’ screen version. For starters, the film is tediously self-obsessed and knowingly aware of it’s arty, pretentious ideologies – On The Road feels the need to constantly remind viewers of how life-affirmed and culturally viable the trio are despite spending a large portion of the time getting high or engaging in experimental sex. A lot of the picture seems strangely pleased with itself, as if it needs to pat its own back just to remind us all that it’s worthy of congratulation.
Also, the film features some well performed but ultimately redundant cameos from Amy Adams, Steve Buscemi and Viggo Mortensen - they all carry the air of ‘add-ons’ just to make the promotion seem starrier and to a higher profile. Working their way amongst these three cameos are shortened, yet strong turns from Tom Sturridge and Kirsten Dunst , making the wider character development seem like a practice jigsaw; shoving in pieces into spots that don’t quite fit and then endlessly re-arranging.
I heard a fair few continuing the ‘unfilmable/unadaptable’ debate as I left the screening and because I haven’t read the text, I felt out of place to comment but from where I sat, On The Road works fine as a feature film – it’s occasionally heavy-handed and seminal with its overtly indie narration, which I imagine is based upon extracts from the novel, but fundamentally it’s a success from a filmic standpoint. The two terms above are wrong in my opinion anyway; nothing is ‘unfilmable’ per se, it’s just some things do not need to be adapted – perhaps the time of writing, style or tone is perfectly fitting for page and projecting it seems irrelevant.
Applying this theory to On The Road, I would say it is a relevant work and for the most part Salles gives strong, assured direction to a film that was clearly a task to create and maintain; and overall there was a lot more that I liked about the film than disliked. This is a gorgeous, ambitious and sentimental picture that may have some irritating issues, but I cannot deny that I was wrapped up in the strange, hipster lifestyle these three presented. As a result, I want to drive across America even more than before.[Rating 3.5]