Based on Jack Kerouac’s novel of the same name, On The Road begins in 1947 in New York City, where a young writer, Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), finds himself introduced to the larger-than-life Dean Moriarty (played with charm and conviction by Garrett Hedlund.) Thanks to Dean’s slightly “mad” outlook on life, Sal thinks that spending time with him may lead to some good stories — and hopefully fix his current writer’s block. But more than that, Dean reminds Sal of someone. As their relationship grows, Sal gets more and more embroiled in Dean’s life, and instead of simply observing and being around it Sal starts to become an integral part of it.
When Dean decides to move back to Denver to win back his young wife Marylou (Kristen Stewart), Sal takes him up on his offer to join him. As a “young writer trying to take off,” Sal literally takes off, hitchhiking his way across the country and meeting even more interesting characters and jotting more and more notes in his tiny notebooks along the way. Once in Denver, Sal finds himself quickly falling into Dean’s life of sex, drugs, and jazz, and the line between reality and fantasy starts to blur.
There is no question Dean is a passionate man. He can’t seem to help himself from jumping from relationship to relationship, marriage to marriage, with equal enthusiasm, and he announces the birth of each of his children with uninhibited excitement. But it becomes clear these are not the actions of an enlightened man. They are those of a man who never learned to grow up. Sal and Dean bond over the loss of their fathers — Sal’s died recently while Dean’s left many years before), and this lack of a father figure, along with a childhood spent riding the rails, explain how Dean became the man he is now. But neither Sal, nor director Walter Salles, try to dig deeper than that.
Dean certainly breaks his fair share of hearts along the way, from Camille (Kirsten Dunst), who he leaves behind with one daughter and another on the way, to Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge), who writes some of his best poetry thanks to the pain suffered over their relationship. But it is the moment a stone-faced Dean leaves a very ill Sal in Mexico that stings the most. Dean is always thrilled to see Sal, his face lighting up each time they unexpectedly grace each other’s doorsteps, and his ability to leave him behind in such a vulnerable state proves just how selfish and lost Dean truly is. Dean may have inspired Sal to begin writing again (and given him some unforgettable memories along the way), but the moment Sal finally realizes he needs to cut ties with his unpredictable, unreliable friend leaves one wondering if his life would have been better if Dean Moriarty had never been in it.
While Brazilian-born Salles’s attempt to depict life across America in the late 1940s results in some beautiful shots and captures the essence of a never-ending road trip, his constant jump cuts and the mumbled ramblings of his leads leaves the journey feeling more confusing than exciting. The characters move in and out of relationships as often, and as quickly, as they do different states, but they end up giving the impression of a group of people who are restless rather than free.
The Upside: Solid performances from Hedlund, Riley, Dunst, and Sturridge along with stunning images of the American landscape and memorable juxtapositions, such as a typewriter return with that of the open road.
The Downside: Filled with hard-to-like characters who spend more time telling the audience how close they all are rather than showing it paired with erratic cuts and jumps, which keep the film from ever finding its pacing. And the flow of the film is further inhibited by an overly long runtime.
On the Side: Salles said he referred to Kerouac’s “On The Road” while working on The Motorcycle Diaries and felt an innate connection to the story before filming even began.