It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey
by Megan Smith
The desire to avoid responsibility, harness eternal youth, and live in the moment is exemplified in Brazilian director Walter Salles’s on-screen rendition of Jack Kerouac’s 1957 best seller On the Road.
We are introduced to Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), the aspiring writer and wallflower, who, up until this point, has craved adventure but has never taken the leap. However, his life is revolutionized once he is introduced to the handsome and rugged Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund).
Although it is obvious that Dean is a con man—Sal recognizes this early on—he still radiates with authenticity. The two men form a strong bond and even deem themselves “blood brothers.” Dean then convinces Sal to travel across the country to visit him and his new wife, the sixteen-year-old Marylou (Kristen Stewart). As Sal says in the film, “With the coming of Dean Moriarty came the part of my life I call my life on the road.”
During this time, the men attempt to learn the true meaning of freedom—explored through sex with women, drugs, music, and spiritual exploration. At one point, Carlo (Tom Sturridge), a friend of Dean and Sal, ends up having a playful threesome with Dean and Marylou, only to fall hopelessly in love with Dean. “This is how you love,” Carlo exclaims to Sal as he describes his newfound passion for Dean.
However, Dean’s con-man ways prove difficult to manage along the way. As he divorces Marylou for the more academic Camille (Kirsten Dunst), he is just as fast to rekindle his love affair with Marylou on the side. Despite this balancing act, Dean and Sal continue to live a life fueled by cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, sex, and the idea of the journey.
The film is shot in a way that utterly envelops the viewer. While watching, you feel as if you’re actually in that seedy urban apartment filled with sweet smoke and the stale smell of alcohol, laughing along with these characters. You are in that Mexican brothel rich with color and overflowing with tequila. You are a part of Sal and Dean’s friendship.
Tested after a series of events—including Dean having sex with a male driver for money and later leaving Sal in a sickly withdrawal from heroin in Mexico—Sal appears to abandon his friendship with Dean. However, Dean’s influence on Sal comes full circle at the end of the film, as he is ultimately the influence for Sal’s book—representative of Kerouac’s novel that he wrote and finished in three weeks on a single 120-foot scroll of paper.
As Gary M. Kramer of GayCityNews puts it, “No screen version can do complete justice to the novel, but this cinematic On the Road mostly succeeds.”
From IFC Films/MPI Home Video (mpihomevideo.com).