It took more than 50 years for Jack Kerouac’s bestseller “On the Road” to be turned into a film. Curiously, it was a Brazilian director, Walter Salles, who finally took on this American classic about freedom — sexual, spiritual, musical, and drink- and drug-induced. Working from an adaptation by José Rivera, with whom Salles partnered on “The Motorcycle Diaries,” the director is faithful to key chunks of Kerouac’s vivid prose. No screen version can do complete justice to the novel, but this cinematic “On the Road” mostly succeeds.
Salles’ film gets the beat era’s language as well as its jazz and the camaraderie of its young men — and women — right. These are lives fueled by cigarettes, Benzedrine, joints, alcohol, sex, poetry and the open road, poetry of the open road, and the freedom that comes from being one’s own person.
The film, shot by Eric Gautier, looks utterly gorgeous. Many of the urban scenes have the burnished lighting and composition of a poignant Edward Hopper painting. Scenes on the wide-open road are luminous. The atmosphere found in seedy apartments, diners, and bars is consistently richly textured.
The story opens with Sal Paradise (Sam Riley of “Control” playing the Kerouac character) recounting his first meeting with Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund, in the Neal Cassady role) when the latter arrives in New York. The two men become fast friends — like long lost brothers, they say — and Dean prompts Sal to begin his life “on the road.”
These early scenes have an urgency and energy that mirror Kerouac’s jaunty text. The way the characters relate to one another also captures the spirit of the times. When Carlo (Tom Sturridge, who represents Allen Ginsberg) kisses Dean and has a threesome with Dean and a girl, he effuses, “This is how you love.” Very much of its particular moment, the comment is also typical of the way these characters intellectualized their late 1949s experiments in personal freedom.
“On the Road” meanders a bit after its initial kinetic burst. A sequence of Sal picking cotton in Selma, California, is important — it shows him working and away from Dean’s influence — but it slows things down before they pick back up with the two friends reuniting.
Sal’s meetings with Dean often involve the latter’s romantic entanglements. Dean loves two women — Marylou (Kristen Stewart) and Camille (Kirsten Dunst as the Carolyn Cassady figure) — and he spends time with one or the other and traveling back and forth between them. In contrast, Sal is a more passive character. Even when Dean and Marylou invite him into their bed, Sal’s discomfort prompts him to ask Dean to leave the room. But Sal is not always so prudish, as a scene of the three of them, naked in the front seat of a car with Marylou servicing both men, proves.
The film version of “On the Road” makes Dean a mythical figure — much as Kerouac did in the book. Hedlund’s Dean is a magnetic conman. The sexy actor, swaggering shirtless or altogether naked, does well in the difficult role; his infectious enthusiasm makes viewers appreciate Dean’s hedonism. Dean is charming even as he’s stealing gas or food or trying to sweet-talk his way out of a speeding ticket.
Sal is far less interesting a character for much of the film. He is often the quiet observer, taking careful, copious notes, which he will use to turn his and Dean’s story into the celebrated novel. Sal’s few active moments come when he steps in for Dean — as a dance partner for Camille in one scene and a companion for Marylou in another. Riley does his best with the limited role, but his final moments provide some payoff for his slow-burn performance.
“On the Road” is largely about the two men embracing their adventures. It is not about the destination, but the journey, and the film makes that clear. An experience they have in Mexico may be the most memorable — in part because of the stylish way Salles films it — but there are interesting facets to all their encounters. A meeting with Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen in the William S. Burroughs role) in Louisiana is strange, as are the experiences that result from accepting a ride from a mild-mannered gay man (Steve Buscemi) who gets Dean to fuck him.
Dean and Sal have an undeniable chemistry that bonds them, but the film is curiously cool about exploring its emotional core or their feelings about the other characters. Dean’s struggle to satisfy both Marylou and Camille is not particularly compelling, nor are episodes featuring Galatea (Elisabeth Moss), who is angry that her husband Ed (Danny Morgan) leaves her while he takes out on the road with the guys. The lack of emotional engagement among the characters is the film’s biggest drawback, perhaps demonstrating how the necessity of compressing the novel made it so tough to film.
Salles’ film may not be a masterpiece — honestly, how could it be when stacked up against the book’s legacy? — but it is an earnest effort. This screen version of “On the Road” may disappoint fans of the novel — not to mention enraging purists — but it offers some very fine moments reconjuring the restless spirit of Kerouac’s classic.
ON THE ROAD | Directed by Walter Salles | IFC Films | Opens Dec. 21 | IFC Center | 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St. | ifccenter.com