Starring Kristen Stewart, Garrett Hedlund. Written by Jose Rivera, adapted from the novel by Jack Kerouac. Directed by Walter Salles. 14A. 124 min. Opens Jan. 18.
For a counterculture touchstone, Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel, On the Road, is a pretty conservative piece of literature. Its lyrical, semi-autobiographical account of “boys and girls in America”—a phrase coined by its narrator and authorial stand-in, Sal Paradise, whose voyage of self-discovery across post–World War II America following his divorce serves as a connective tissue between its various episodes—makes being young, poor, and feckless sound like a sweaty, nude blast. That is, until the author reminds them (and us) that it’s all fun and games until somebody gets dysentery in Mexico City.
Walter Salles’s handsomely shot film adaptation is faithful to the book’s up-and-down structure. He bathes the early adventures of his road-tripping heroes in golden light and then gradually darkens the colour palette as life starts dealing them a series of reality checks. The performances are modulated accordingly: Sam Riley enacts aspiring writer Sal’s fall from innocence into experience mostly by limiting his facial expressions, while Garrett Hedlund’s Dean Moriarty—the charming, semi-cultured hustler who draws would-be wild ones to him like moths to a flame—is similarly drained of character down the stretch.
Interestingly, in this very male-centric and at times overtly homoerotic story, the most vivid character is female—Kristen Stewart’s Marylou, who is Dean’s on-and-off girlfriend and the reluctant object of Sal’s desire. Playing a young woman who relishes her sexual power over men yet increasingly feels as if she’s simply being (literally) dragged along for the ride, Stewart delivers an intense, deeply felt performance—one that will hopefully help to put Twilight safely in her rear-view mirror.