Based on Jack Kerouac’s novel of the same name, On the Road begins in 1947 New York City, where young writer Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), is living in his mother’s Queens apartment and hanging out with his panic-prone poet friend, Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge). Together, they’re entranced by the sudden presence of Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), a firecracker of a personality, who touched down from Denver. He is described by Sal’s halting and raspy narration (which is actually a decent interpretation of Kerouac’s voice) as having spent “a third of his time in the pool hall, a third in jail, and a third in the public library.”
Married to the seductive 16-year-old Marylou (Kristen Stewart), Dean is determined not to get trapped in a boring, square existence. Eventually, Dean and Marylou return to Denver, though Dean has another girl, Camille (Kirsten Dunst), to marry out West. It’s not long before Sal leaves New York, notebook in hand, hitchhiking out to Denver and starting the film’s various cross country travels and bleary-eyed Benzedrine nights.
Dean can’t seem to stop himself from jumping from relationship to relationship, marriage to marriage. He announces the birth of each of his children with great enthusiasm only to abandon them shortly thereafter. It soon becomes clear that Dean is little more than a man that simply refuses to grow up. Sal and Dean bond over the loss of their fathers—Sal’s died recently while Dean’s left years before. This lack of a father figure combined with a childhood riding the rails, helps to explain why Dean is the man-child he’s become. Unfortunately, director Walter Salles doesn’t explore this part of Dean’s life beyond a surface level.
While the women in Dean’s life were certainly hurt by him and Carlo Marx writes some of his best poetry as a result of their rocky relationship, it’s Sal, who hero-worships him, who perhaps suffers the most. Dean is always thrilled to see Sal, his face lighting up whenever he enters a room. So it comes as a complete shock when Dean abandons him in Mexico, sick and in need of help. It is then that Sal realizes that he must cut ties with the unreliable Dean.
While Salles’s attempt to depict life across America in the late 1940s offers up some beautiful shots and captures the essence of a long road trip, constant jump cuts and the mumbled line readings of the cast ultimately leave the journey feeling flat, confusing, and overly long. The characters move in and out of relationships as often, and as quickly, as they do different states. However, instead of giving the impression that that they are free as a bird, they come across as restless and lacking real self confidence.
Kerouac’s novel allows the reader to use their own imagination to experience America, it’s locations and various characters. Watching On the Road is to see people do things against backdrops that can only appear small and insignificant when compared to Kerouac’s vivid descriptions. While this version of On the Road can hardly be called great, it’s a worthy attempt at a novel that is essentially unfilmable.
Shot in 35mm, the 2.40:1 aspect ratio transfer is adequate, if not impressive. The image shows off some nice detail, with sharp texture and good delineation, but there’s a sloppiness that occasionally threatens to overpower the proceedings. Compression artifacts are an issue throughout, largely in outdoor scenes. Thankfully, there’s a nice layer of natural film grain and color saturation and black levels are pleasing.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is impressive and rather immersive. The jazzy soundtrack is given full surround support and is nicely melded with dialogue and effects. Ambient and directional effects move through the soundfield cleanly and competently.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are available.
The following special features are included:
- Deleted Scenes (HD, 7:48) This rather small selection of deleted scenes wouldn’t have added much to the film.
- Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2:29).