Walter Salles is one of the best untapped directors working in Hollywood today. He first shot to critical acclaim back in 1998 with the indie flick, “Central Station” which won the 1998 Berlin Film Festival. Six years later, he was burning up the indie circuit with “The Motorcycle Diaries” and introduced the western world to Gael Garcia Bernal. The beautiful epic followed the early years of revolutionary Che Guevara. It was that film that we really got to see what Salles was made of. And why he was the perfect choice to direct a film adaptation of “On the Road”.
Based on the classic novel by Jack Kerouac, a young writer Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) has his life shaken by the arrival of free-spirited Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) and his girl, Marylou (Kristen Stewart). As they travel across the country, they encounter a mix of people who each impact their journey undeniably.
At the center of the film is young actor Sam Riley, who hit the indie circuit with a bang in 2007 with “Control”. Here he is channeling the adventures of young Jack Kerouac, who in the novel is named Sal Paradise. Riley brings an intense amount of humility and wonderment to his character and of all the crazy things that go on in the film it is nice to see him so grounded.
On the flipside of the coin is Garrett Hedlund. His character is a selfish, playboy, survivor who lives and dies by living on the road. Hedlund is not your obvious choice for Riley’s character to admire or to play a dashing playboy. But that kind of works because it seems like he isn’t much on the outside until you see how he influences people and the stories he tells. His charisma transcends his outer appearance. Think Truman Capote.
Kristen Stewart is trying to shed her squeaky clean Twilight image with this film. She plays a teen bride who marries way to early to a free-spirit, Dean Moriarty. After lots of sex and drugs, their marriage starts to wain. She isn’t strong enough to keep Dean grounded and she pays for it. “On the Road” does in some ways remind us why Stewart was called an actress rather than a starlet before “Twilight”. There is depth here and the pain we see is very convincing.
The film is also chalked full of great character cameos from Amy Adams and Viggo Mortensen as husband and wife to Steve Buscemi as a lonely old man to Terrence Howard as a jazz great. And Kirsten Dunst, Alice Braga and Elisabeth Moss show up as women who help shape these boys on their journey. Each cameo adds a new side to Sal’s elongated journey.
Salles’s amazing direction shows that he seems to be influenced by Bernardo Bertolucci except Salles’s color palette isn’t as intense. The scope and relationships between these characters reminded me so much of 2003’s “The Dreamers“, one of the top five films of that year. The love triangle, the sharing, the risks, the desperation and the intensity of their endeavors are all here. You can’t help but be fascinated by these characters.
Obviously not all the book is up there on screen and trying to capture such a literary classic is a monumental task. This is a hard film to walk away from and not make those comparisons. But I still think it is a great movie and one that has been vastly overlooked this year. And I think it belongs on my top ten list of the year. (Funny how “The Dreamers” was also overlooked the same way back in 2003).
4.5 out of 5
So Says the Soothsayer