On the Road is the tale of would-be author Sal Paradise and his experiences over a three year period, most of them with his volatile, free-spirited friend. From there, I sort of run into a brick wall trying to concisely map out what the film truly is. But, is it me or is it the movie?
It’s odd. I saw On the Road some weeks ago, but I’ve been working through (I lie, I’ve been trying to) some semblance of a review for some time, now. Curious thing, a few hours after initially seeing it I sat down to ponder and couldn’t for the life of me think of how to put its “plot” into words. Ultimately, I’m willing to admit that this has less to do with me being a poor movie viewer (heh) and more to the point of On the Road being a defiantly plot-less film (even as it shouldn’t seem to be so defiantly plotless). In fact, so much of On the Road comes off as illusory to me that I’m never particularly certain what to consider it as. Even though it’s about the journeys of Sal Paradise, it doesn’t qualify as bildungsroman, it ends with Sal coming to an epiphany, but I’d hardly call it a coming-of-age film, truly. And, sure there’s a lot of travelling (err, much of it is done on the road) but it’s not really a road movie now, is it? What On the Road could be described as is a meandering journey following Sal’s own three year journey through life and America, most of them with his more colourful friend the expressive Dean Moriarity.
To be honest, though, even as very much about On the Road seems so mediocre, there’s some of it that’s decidedly not. For one, there’s that gorgeous cinematography I mentioned above (it's sparse production and costume design is worthy appreciating, too). And, for two, it’s well acted. I should probably say somewhat well-acted because it’s not all well acted, and some of it is not badly acted but poorly acted. Still, generally it’s mostly well-acted. The film doesn’t care for its women, but Dunst’s in a few short scenes is particularly on point. I would have been interested in seeing a film about her harangued wife. I sometimes feel like I’m the only one in my corner defending the legitimacy of Sam Riley’s acting and On the Road pays him exactly zero favours by giving him a character that’s more of a nonentity than anything else to play with. And, Riley doesn’t do himself many favours by donning a....questionable accent. But, he’s much better in the role of the cipher than I could anticipate which seems like exceptionally slight praise. But there’s this scene where Sal is on a bed, about to be a part of a threesome and just bursts out laughing in embarrassment and disbelief and it’s one in a series of moments where Riley manages to make a nonentity of a character work. Of course, the general pliability and boring-ness of Sal is rendered even worse when Riley shares the screen with Hedlund who gives a much sharper performance of a much more nuanced character – although, truthfully, I hedge on the word “nuanced” because Hedlund’s Dean Moriarity – like all the characters in the film – is hazily constructed. But, major praise to Hedlund for turning the potentially hackneyed restless wanderer into this moving tragic antihero.
And, therein rests so many of my bugbears about On the Road. What are these men struggling against? What are they running from? And why should I pay them my attention? Trying to sensitise myself with the material after seeing the film there’s the sense that On the Road exists (or should exist) as a tale of men trying to do their best against the society that has done them wrong. But, the film is exasperatingly devoid of ANY semblance of context for me to find out what the issues are that they’re facing. Salles doesn’t seem truly invested in that, and ultimately I’m not either.
Salles said one of the reasons he did the film was because "We want to
deal with a generation that collides with its society". And, I frown
because this film gives us no indication of what the collision entails. When Sal comes to the epiphany at the film’s end it’s clear that Salles and company hope and expect the audience to get that sense of urgency which marks the end of Sal’s journey, but we don’t. I don’t. There’s no sense of jubilation which comes at the close of experiencing the lives of these free spirits. I have spent two hours with them, and I have been charmed - even moved - in parts, but... What I’m left with is abject despondency and feelings of fatigue. And it’s a shame, there are things to appreciate within but the whole of the journey that On the Road is one which leaves me feeling exhausted.
Unworthy of Your Love (but never worthy of your hate either) / C
(Digression: It’s really weird that in the face of the dozen or so movie reviews I’m STILL sitting on, that On the Road is one I felt the need to write some semblance of a review for. Weird because, at best, my response to the film as you’ve noticed – weary. But, apparently I had things to say. Hopefully the writing bug, however meandering, stays.)