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On the Road

Hey, Jack Kerouac, they finally made a movie of your classic novel. Now for the tricky part ...

Aimee Williams August 7th, 2013

Walter Salles’ On the Road extends a fragmented blip on the map of American poetry — one that doesn’t necessitate resurrection.


An ode to poet Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation, On the Road fails to elicit nostalgia for all things Beat, but not for lack of ambition. Its Americana backdrop depicts the unbridled beauty of the West. The visuals are a testament to a time when these United States were more innocent and collectively curious.

New to Blu-ray and DVD from IFC Films, it's made by a Kerouac fan for the Kerouac legion. It mixes biographical happenings with scenes from the 1957 book of the same name, paralleling Kerouac’s own episodic, fragmented style.

As in the classic novel, characters Sal (Sam Riley, Control) and Dean (Garrett Hedlund, TRON: Legacy) must grapple with their own restlessness in post-World War II America, when rigid conformity was embraced and deviance admonished. Sal, Dean and the pre-Beatnik club are on a quest for “truth” and genuine experiences, something they can’t seem to find in the cultural mecca that is New York City.

The boys-only club consists of Sal, Dean and Carlo (Tom Sturridge, Pirate Radio), with Beat-groupie Marylou (Kristen Stewart, The Twilight Saga). Out from drug-induced ramblings and booze-diluted conversations comes false enlightenment, especially via Carlo, the flamboyant open book of a character who flirts with suicide on many occasions. Watching these interactions is equivalent to overhearing drunk, pseudointellectual freshmen discussing Philosophy 101.

When the walls of NYC start closing in, Dean drags Sal into his car, prompting the infamous road trip that epitomizes Kerouac’s legacy.

Like his 2004 film, The Motorcycle Diaries, Salles’ infatuation with the endless back-road journey is indicative of the empty but aesthetically endeavor that On the Road embodies. Ultimately leading from one state of ambiguity and isolation to the next, the film actually says more about Kerouac’s elusive place in the American literary canon than the director probably intended.

Executive producer Francis Ford Coppola apparently had been pushing for an adaptation of Kerouac’s novel since the late ’70s, but as watching the end result makes evident, some ideas simply decay with time.  —Aimee Williams

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