Reviewed by H.A. Eaglehart
“In my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night.” Brilliant words written by the great Allen Ginsberg while in San Francisco in 1956. It’s impossible not to watch them on film without acknowledging Ginsberg’s work as a poet, since he figures so prominently under the pseudonym Carlo in Jack Kerouac’s timeless classic On the Road that director Walter Salles turned into a magnificent 2014 multi-award-winning entry in film festivals around the world.
The star-studded cast proves the importance that Kerouac’s words still hold for us today as the world still slowly crumbles beneath hate and the human condition. Every performance given comes from a place of true conviction from an ensemble that fights to drive this incredible story home for the audience just as its original creator intended.
The good direction of On the Road becomes immediately apparent from the beginning, and it’s easy to see why Salles was awarded Best Direction by the Sydney Film Festival. Perhaps it is just the amazing words of Kerouac that bring such life to the screen as we are introduced to a closeted/troubled Allen Ginsberg, played wonderfully by Tom Sturridge, and his sexy lover Dean Moriarty, whose life in real life was Neil Cassidy, played spot on by Garrett Hedlund. We see them stare into one another’s eyes looking for trust after just having had a three-way with one of the many girls that are passed through on the journey down Kerouac’s road.
You can’t help but see two young men searching for truth in their lives within a crumbling world of mediocrity. It’s a real treat to see both actors equally connected not only with the script but also each other. Again I think Kerouac must be given a lot of the credit, but you cannot ignore the great talent of this stellar cast. The pain of these characters just pours from Sturridge’s eyes as he quietly yearns for Dean to “just simply hold me.” While he and Sal Paradise, based on Jack Kerouac and performed by Sam Riley, sip liquor in the wake of Dean abandoning them to have sex with a girl, Ginsberg cries, “This is the first time sex has been part of my relationship with a man. Grief is closest. I’m 21. By the time I’m 23, I’m going to write a great poem. Then it’s all over for me.”
Based on the poem quoted at the beginning, it’s clear Ginsberg did indeed keep his word, but the pain and suffering in his writing becomes more understandable as we see Dean, the man of his dreams, wrench his yearning heart apart. The accomplishment in this film is that it gives reveals the importance in art; you can’t help but wonder if Kerouac would have ever written On the Road if equally great artists, like Ginsberg, hadn’t been a part of his life. Art inspires art in collaboration, and the performances of this cast are no exception.
Eight years under President Obama have given rise to a new generation of people that cannot see life in the same way that the post-World War II artists of the Beat Generation did, which makes it even harder us to understand the Civil Rights era that came as a result of the great literary movement that Kerouac, Ginsberg and many others inspired. On the Road is the story of mere children growing up in a devastated world being torn down by capitalism, communism, and fear of nuclear annihilation. These are characters that are seeing the world anew for the first time through the use of drugs, sexual freedom, and any other means available to discover truth.
Racing down highways built by President Eisenhower, whose predecessor says, “We must cut down on the price of living,” is constantly quoted by Dean and Sal both repeating the President’s words every time they steal gas or take food from country grocers. Proving that idealism has always failed our species, because of the state of our condition that doesn’t show any signs of changing. While at his parent’s house with Dean and some friends, Sal Paradise erupts at the news that General Douglas MacArthur banned kissing in the streets of Tokyo, shouting, “Who does that puritanical old fart think he is?!” If Kerouac were writing his timeless masterpiece today, I shutter to think what Sal and his friends would think now with Trump in office. The beauty of the writing truly shines through the screen as this story of raw naked pain unveils the close relationship that 1959 has with 2017.
Just like any journey down the road of life this film reflects the comings and goings of all the different people that pass through our lives by the memorable cameos made throughout the 124 minutes of drama. When Sal meets a Latina woman named Terry (the talented Alice Braga) who picks cotton for a living, we see Kerouac’s own desire to connect with the lives of those tread upon by—as Viggo Mortensen later puts it, “White Americans”. We see Sal turn a hand to working America’s cotton fields and then be mocked by his white overseers for being a white man mingling with Latinos.
The civil divides that tear us a part truly come to life as we watch Terry and Sal sweating both in the fields and naked on sheets of desire. Young souls with the strength to seek out the love and connection that makes us all human, while also realizing the insurmountable obstacles keeping us from uniting as one race. It’s heartbreaking to watch them constantly met with disappointment despite their best, often misguided, efforts in combating the horrid elements that many of us all want to change. Yet, while taking Sal’s mother to New York as a favor for feeding them, Dean is pulled over for a speeding ticket and Sal’s mother ultimately is forced to pay the fine proving that sex and love are not enough to survive in a world that revolves around the almighty dollar.
Watching the crucifixion of these relatable characters fighting for righteousness makes this film a true compliment to the book, a rare feat. From watching a stoned Amy Adams sweeping lizards out of trees with a broom in the dark, to getting to see Mortenson perform the part of real life William Burroughs butt-naked step into a tiny shed to breath in fumes to get high, this film is a rollercoaster ride that culminates into a magical experience.
Kristen Stewart and Kristen Dunst are the leading actresses that form a striking duo of ‘Kristen’ prowess as they represent the women that get left behind on Sal and Dean’s journey down the road. We begin to see the consequences of Dean using his boyish charm to swoon the hearts of a world in need, ultimately leaving Stewart and Dunst shipwrecked upon the wayside., to which Dean later tells Sal, “As you get older all those mistakes just keep stacking up.”
Despite seeing Dunst’s heartbreaking performance as a lonely mother left alone who tells Dean as he packs his suitcase, “You know how much I gave up for you?” and being surprised by the usually predictable performance of Stewart, who was perfectly typecast as Marylou, it’s still hard to hate Dean even after hurting so many of the men and women in his life, because you understand that strong people simply cannot save everybody. Even a lifeboat will sink if too many cling to it.
While driving to California, Dean pulls over and picks up an Okie cowboy hitchhiker, played by American blues singer and songwriter Jake La Botz, who sings folks songs as they travel down the road into the sunset promising the Golden State. One of the lyrics that Bolz’s character sings that drives home our understanding of Dean’s predicament goes, “It’s hard to love what you kill.”
Steve Buscemi enters the story playing a salesman who travels to Denver with Dean and Sal after they abandon Dunst’s character and her and Dean’s baby in California. Buscemi is yet another example of the stellar ensemble, and performs the part of a guy looking to ensure that everybody around him remains “copacetic” to the score of commitment. Again, commitment reappears as an important part of the film, first with Ginsberg pining for Dean, and again as Buscemi later admits to Dean and Sal in a cheap motel that he really doesn’t like girls.
In the end, Sal gets to witness Dean become Buscemi’s bedtime top, which finally begins to crack his own love for Dean. Later Buscemi leaves them in Denver, to which Dean turns to Sal and says, “You see? Give ‘em what they secretly want, and they just panic.” The brilliance in Hedland’s talent as an actor comes as Kerouac’s curved out literary journey gradually begins winding down beneath the weight of reality, unveiling an arced performance that makes Hedland the perfect pick for Dean.
It oddly isn’t surprising that Dean arises as the dark hero of the story, because even his own strength isn’t enough to carry him through the story unscathed. Granted in the end he too ends up alone and begging to not be abandoned like all the loves in his past, but it’s his courage that makes him so endearing to the audience. Even the strongest crumble in the face of a world filled with millions of people all sinking. Leaving us to wonder if maybe the strongest people are actually those like Ginsberg and Paradise who remain committed to their art and those that they love.
I’m left with the somber tone of Ginsberg’s words, “There is no gold at the end of the rainbow.” Fortunately, anyone that gets to watch Walter Salles’ adaptation of Kerouac’s amazing story will agree that there is definite gold at the end of this cinematic journey On the Road.