TIFF Review: On the Road


I’ve never read Jack Kerouac and I imagine it wouldn’t be for me. I’m a guy who thrives on pursuing goals, so taking off for months on end with no plans would do me more harm than good. I also don’t think drugs are cool. Sorry. I do like sex though. More on how that applies to On the Road in a bit.

On the Road begins with Sal (Sam Riley) struggling to write a book. His friends introduce him to Dean (Garrett Hedlund), a charismatic rebel who first takes the gang out for a night on the town, then on road trips. Of course the road trips are full of self-discovery and inspiration, but also hardship and reality.

Of course On the Road feels episodic. It, by nature, is episodes of Sal’s adventures with Dean and other friends he meets in his journeys. What’s perhaps more impressive is that it’s a collection of five minute episodes, not 20 minute segments or more. Maybe the longest sequence is 10 minutes, and that’s for dramatic weight, but director Walter Salles really keeps it moving. If you don’t like any particular subplot, you don’t have to wait long for the next.

One of the more poignant experiences Sal has includes picking cotton with immigrant farmers and learning about cheap labor. Honestly, that’s all that stands out. All these nonconformist adventures seem kind of the same to me. It doesn’t quite make me love the characters, and certainly doesn’t make the road look appealing to me. I like having food and paying for my goods and services with money I earned, thank you very much. I’m homesick as it is watching this movie in Toronto so you’re not going to sell me on hitting the road.

Hedlund is damn charming. It’s easy to see how characters get seduced by Dean. It’s pretty apparent early on that Dean is a manipulative bastard, and most of his tactics are played for laughs. The people Dean has left behind are portrayed as ridiculous. How dare the family who went broke supporting him try to hold him back, man? Isn’t all this funny larceny and mooching cool? Why does a wife have to be such a square and make her husband stay home, man?

I think the point is that Sal takes a while to learn this, so the movie reflects his growth. The film ultimately makes the right call on Dean, but viewing it from an adult perspective, I know guys like Dean are trouble. If you don’t agree with me, just the fact that he keeps abandoning people should seal it. What good is being a rebel if you’re never there for the people who follow you? Also, he gives them drugs.

If anything, I can see that these road trips are really sex trips. Everyone’s having sex, with each other, or Sal with people he only met two scenes ago. It’s not exactly roughing it when you have the comforts of companionship. I was impressed by how up front and sensitively it deals with gay characters.

All of the actors are good. Hedlund of course has the most showy part, Riley carrying the narrative burden. Supporting characters stun: Viggo Mortensen giving his usual all and total depth to a few minor scenes, Amy Adams coming a little unhinged, Kirsten Dunst breaking your heart. And K-Stew can dance! She missed her calling being in the Step Up movies. Yes, what I got out of Kristen Stewart’s performance was one scene where she dances. She’s good in a harrowing teen in crisis role, but seductively comes to life when she moves.

So realizing that On the Road is not really a movie for me, I think it is a good movie. It’s well done, fast paced at over two hours and never dragging. There is one impressive shot of a lot of old cars on the road with no CGI. Basically, solid film, but not wow.