Jack Kerouac’s most valuable contribution to travel literature was his conflation of God and self into flip sides of the same epiphanic currency. An undeniable existential ambiguity runs through the history of the road narrative, even as far back as the Homeric epic, wherein heroes were constantly wagged between humiliating acts of gods and emboldening episodes of experiential self-discovery. Filtering Eastern thought through the prism of his stubborn Catholicism, Kerouac instead viewed “the journey” as a continuum of anonymity from which one derives nothing, yet upon which one might glimpse (and join) the common smear behind all of creation’s avatars. This inversion is merely pseudo-Buddhist cuteness, perhaps, but it was an immaculate fit for the jazzy, automobile-laden era in which the author lived. Eschewing moralistic generational reportage, Kerouac exulted in the complete disintegration of the post-war ego by way of itinerancy’s secular spoils: petty crime, drugs, music, and promiscuity. Was not, after all, a life of bumming but an acknowledgement of the spiritual insolvency humanity has inherited from Adam’s fall, and therefore a link to the ineffable beyond?
Kerouac himself admitted the lack of visual potential in his nuttily philosophical texts; his own unrealized On the Road film would have simply fixed a dashboard-mounted camera on himself and Marlon Brando as they yakked their way across the country in a Cadillac. And yet as risky as Kerouac’s celluloid dream sounds, Walter Salles’s finished adaptation is by far the more conceptually insolent. Taking cues from 1970s road films such as Two-Lane Blacktop and Days of Heaven, the movie’s pictorial tone is one of asphalt-crunching, dawn-breaking, icicle-defrosting meditativeness. In other words, Salles emphasizes all of the silly landscape stuff that Kerouac ignored in favor of verbal joys, of the thrill of thinking and speaking and being spoken to thoughtfully. This shift often cheapens the less-than-noble tendencies of Beat culture; when the characters interpret President Truman’s call to “reduce the cost of living” as an invitation to thieve, Kerouac’s treatise on all-American skullduggery is boiled down to a piddling punchline.
Eliding the importance of reflection and inflection to the novel, Salles instead zooms out to depict time, people, and places with period pageantry, much of it fancifully superficial. (A Slim Gaillard impersonator toward the end has about an ounce of the real man’s energy.) The United States becomes a catalogue of hick imbeciles and proto-hippie thrill-seekers through which Kerouac’s stand-in, Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), can’t help but browse while bouncing aimlessly between Denver, San Francisco, and New York after the death of his father. As in the book, the only semblance of plot structure is offered by Paradise’s socio-intellectual attraction to the semi-cultured crook and hustler Dean Moriarty (Neil Cassady’s pseudonym, played by Garrett Hedlund). Sal digs bull-goose-loony Dean’s knowledge of narcotics and jazz, as well as his slipperiness toward women and family. But after watching Dean seduce, betray, and alienate a host of coast-to-coast victims, many drawn from real life (Tom Sturridge’s Carlo Marx is Allan Ginsberg and Viggo Mortensen’s Old Bull Lee is William S. Burroughs), Sal comes to see his friend as a sacrificial archetype whose lack of heroism is better appreciated in theory than in practice.
Salles transcribes the novel’s events concretely, albeit with handheld extemporaneity, but ditches Sal’s running commentary, therefore disallowing Dean to win us over the way he does the protagonist’s circle of friends. Hedlund writhes around in the role like a hipster shaman, converting his arrogance and cocksmanship into social advantages while his Oedipal conflicts doom him to antisocial self-destructiveness. This extroverted self-absorption appears all the more exaggerated to us, however, because the other characters’ seem so easily duped by it—a far cry from the way the book both acknowledged and confronted Dean’s churlishness within the first few pages. Without this context, and without the ragged cadence of Kerouac’s first-person exposition (itself an attempt to emulate Dean/Neal’s rhythmic correspondence), the Beats look gullible and hedonistic rather than like the forgiveness-prone, spiritually experimental students of life they saw themselves as.
The lack of a strong expository voice further simplifies the wealth of explicit sex Salles dramatizes, much of it drawn from juicy swathes of Kerouac’s only recently published original scroll. Unexplained, these moments flick by like a costumed erotic clip show: Sal fucks a dark-haired drifter in front of her sleepy daughter; new wives get one another hip to oral sex; Sal and Dean drive nakedly across the desert with a nymphet wedged between them, her hands gripping each boy’s stick shift while the three are baptized in sunlight. Kerouac saw sex as a compulsive pastime, but it was anything but shallow; the novel describes Dean’s concupiscence as a foolhardy attempt to return to and conquer the womb. Such passages read like gussied-up chauvinism today (as well as between-the-lines homosexuality, implications into which Salles dives headfirst in a memorable scene with Steve Buscemi), but the film won’t even let them get that far. Instead, it’s awash in quietude both blissful and tragic where Kerouac insisted upon speech—dumb and smart speech, clunky and mellifluous speech, didactic and enigmatic speech. To rid On the Road of that speech is to deny our ability to relate to its poetic motivation. We become clumsy voyeurs, and Kerouac’s holy, common smear evaporates into sociological bromide.