Tuesday, 19 March 2013

On the Road

Based on Jack Kerouac’s book of the same name, On the Road is a love letter to the Beat generation of the late 1940’s of which Kerouac himself was a founding member. The plot follows various road trips and eventful days in the lives of several young Americans in the late 1940s as they experiment with drugs and sex and attempt to find meaning in the world and their own lives. The central character Sal Paradise (based on Kerouac – Sam Riley) is a young writer in need of inspiration who meets Dean Moriarty, a wild and carefree man for whom everyone and everything should be explored and or fucked. The two embark on several road trips and meet some strange and interesting people along the way.

Although I initially liked the look of the trailer for On the Road and was aware of the Kerouac novel, it was a film I didn’t get around to seeing in the cinema. Now I’ve seen it I think I made the right choice although overall I’m glad I saw the movie. The film has a terrific atmosphere of youthful energy, opportunity and freedom which is expressed through the music, sex and adventure of its young characters and to be honest I was jealous of their lives. Problems lie in the length of the movie and slow pacing which doesn’t match the exuberance of the plot. The acting is also very mixed but following the film I wanted to discover more about the Beat generation and its characters and beliefs.

I’m always happy to see a former version of New York City on screen and in On the Road we are treated to an albeit brief glimpse of the city in the post war era. The streets buzz with beautiful cars and a post war optimism which is heightened in the younger generation. There is some terrific jazz music in the movie and some of my favourite scenes were set in jazz clubs, just watching the crowd pulsate to the music, looking like the congregation of one of those mental American churches where people flail about, speaking in tongues. These scenes juxtapose nicely against those set in dingy apartments in which the characters chill out, smoking pot and discussing sex, life and the universe. There is a great feeling of freedom in the movie and the characters seem to be able to do what they want and go where they want, when they want. It’s an appealing life to someone like me with itchy feet but a 9-5, two ex-wives, farm to run and three kids to look after. (Please note - some of those aren’t true of my life).

It takes a long time for the wild lifestyle and lack of responsibility to catch up to the central characters but it does eventually arrive. The character of Dean, a central protagonist is constantly rained in by relationships, children and responsibility but always manages to wrestle free, maintaining his on the road lifestyle. It is only in the final moments that the film suggests that this is the wrong path to have taken. It is only hinted at during the film but the group are outsiders and their values and lifestyle don’t sit well with the post war McCarthy era. Although this is obvious to the educated viewer, it isn’t made particularly obvious in the movie. The characters, it could be said, are fifteen years ahead of their time, leading a hippie and sexually liberated lifestyle, full of drugs, sex and music well before the mainstream movement of the swinging 60s.

I found myself interested in most of the characters and some of the acting was great. The stand out is Garrett Hedlund who plays Dean. He is a sort of loose cannon whom the other characters follow with excited obedience and Hedlund plays the role perfectly. He has the charm and arrogance which makes the audience buy into his womanising and he is excellent in the deeper, more emotional scenes. I wasn’t as impressed with Sam Reilly who has done little that has moved me since Control. I felt that he suffered against the louder characters and actors and faded into the background. His accent was also a little wobbly. For the first time ever I am going to write the next sentence. Kristen Stewart was good. I have never been a fan of Stewart’s and have previously described her acting akin to being mildly annoyed at having bees in her ears, but here, free of big budget and poor characterisation she excels. Perhaps she has a future away from the franchises and big special effects epics which she has attracted most attention for in the past. I also hope that a lot of the Twihard teens see her in this and are confused as to why Bella is naked, giving a hand job to two guys at once. Tom Sturridge rounds out the central cast with an angst filled and interesting performance. The film is full of cameos and many of them are scene stealing. Viggo Mortensen is excellent in a brief scene and Amy Adams is also great. Steve Buscemi always lights up the screen and Kirsten Dunst is good. Terrence Howard gets a great cameo as a jazz saxophonist and Elisabeth Moss has a couple of quite funny scenes too.

Overall On the Road is an interesting movie with a great soundtrack which gives a decent portrayal of the Beat generation. I found that there was little substance though and wanted more. I wanted to get to know the characters better and not simply go from New York to Louisiana. I wanted the stories in between. Maybe the movie tries to cram too much in which not only makes it feel long but also brushes over a lot of worthy stuff. In the end the film kind of goes nowhere and explains nothing whereas the characters go everywhere and try to figure out everything. 

GFR 4/10


  • A film version was first proposed in 1957 with Kerouac and Marlon Brando playing the central characters.
  • Kristen Stewart agreed to a salary cut after the budget was slashed. 
  • Filming took place in five countries and three US States.          


  1. Good review Tom. It just feels as if it's going through the motions, and never really concerns itself with hitting the right heart and central theme of the novel. Hedlund and Stewart were great though, and worth a watch, if only because of them.

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