Although Jack Kerouac's “On the Road” has been praised as a milestone in American literature, this film version brings into question how much of a story it really offers. Kerouac's hero, Sal Paradise, becomes transfixed by the rambling outlaw vision of a charismatic car thief, Dean Moriarity, and joins him in a series of journeys from his mother's apartment in Ozone Park, N.Y., as they crisscross the continent to Chicago, Denver, San Francisco and then back again, until it occurs to Dean “I've never been south.” They turn to Mexico, finding in its long, straight cactus-lined roads, some secret to themselves. They also find marijuana; the two may not be unrelated.
These journeys also yield forth booze, women and jazz — which contain their own secrets, but not simply through the searching for them. Along the way, Dean seeks his dead father and exudes so much charisma that the real Dean, Neal Cassady, is said to be the inspiration for the Beat Generation. Published in 1957, “On the Road” grew not into a movement but into a brand; Kerouac was a frequent guest on talk shows, and the Beats made the cover of Life magazine — a group of Beats seen sitting on a floor next to an LP player, wearing black turtlenecks, dark glasses and a look of intense cool. Compared to the Lost Generation and the Me Generation, the Beats were thin tea.
As a teenager, I snatched up the book in its first paperback edition and chose it above any other to display on my desk at the News-Gazette, sometimes underlining trenchant passages. Still in high school, I slipped away to the Turk's Head, a campus coffee shop, which played Miles Davis and Monk, and Beats were rumored by the townspeople to stand on the tables and recite their poetry, although table-standing seems to run counter to the Beat ethos.
My friends and I, newly in possession of our first $450 cars, talked idly of pointing them west and not stopping until we reached the Pacific. Whether this mission matched Mark Twain's “lighting out for the territory,” you may decide.
The Brazilian director Walter Salles is drawn to the notion of young men on epic journeys of self-discovery; his “The Motorcycle Diaries” (2004) involved Che Guevara on a tour of South America that shaped his ideas of South America. In “On the Road,” Kerouac (the British actor Sam Riley) is more interested in how he was shaped by Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund).
Dean in this movie is a rumpled, laconic young man whose fascination for Sal was his inclination to boost cars and set off on journeys to the horizon in search of girls. The girls would be wise to hide when they see these boys coming. Kerouac's wife, Carolyn (known as Camille here and well played by Kirsten Dunst), is given a scene not long after their child is born. “Dean and I are going out,” Sal tells her. “Want to come along?” “No,” she says, “I'll stay and look after baby.”
Having a second thought on his way out, he pokes his head back through he door: “ At least I asked if you wanted to go.” She fixes him with a Kirsten Dunst glare and says, “I know the look on your face. You're sick of me and you're sick of the baby. Do you realize how much I've given up for you?” No, he doesn't. Is his bond with Sal homosexual at its core? The film itself remains ambiguous.
Their long distance trips become epic, mostly in an unimaginably big and sleek Hudson, later in a beat-up Cadillac, they pass vast empty landscapes, pick up hitchhikers, stop in roadside diners, and on the whole have about as much excitement in San Francisco as you'd expect a couple of broke out-of-towners to experience.
The film's last scene is the payoff we expect. Confronting his typewriter, Sal inserts one end of a very long roll of paper and starts to type: “I first met Dean…”
Cormac McCarthy's almost unbearably disturbing 2006 novel about the post-apocalyptic journey of a father and son across a desolate America has now been adapted for the screen and, for this eminently respectful version, director John Hillcoat has effected a guarded change of emphasis. Like an orchestra conductor dampening down the ominous blasts of timpani and brass, while urging more from his emotion-twisting string section, Hillcoat has intensified the heartrending poignancy, while deflecting our attention from the horror.
Readers of McCarthy's book know that it is the depictions of cannibalism in this lawless future-world which provide its deepest shocks. The man and his boy chance upon a secluded country home containing a locked basement horrifically packed with naked prisoners being "farmed" as food for their captors. Later, we find the remains of an infant's corpse, apparently once ready to be eaten by its desperate parents. The second of these events is tactfully omitted from the film, and the first, I felt, had its impact marginally reduced. Hillcoat uses voiceover, which has a calming, distancing function, no matter what revulsions are being described. This is undoubtedly a serious, powerful, well-acted movie, but I can't fully share the critical enthusiasm it has widely gained elsewhere because of what seemed to me its fractional reluctance to confront the nightmare fully, though what Joe Penhall's adaptation arguably does is import into the body of the movie a premonition of the unexpectedly redemptive and gentle tone in McCarthy's final pages.
Viggo Mortensen plays the nameless "Man" struggling across this blasted, hellish landscape with his son. The America they knew has been destroyed by an unexplained environmental catastrophe. The mother of his child (Charlize Theron) has deserted them, although the question of blame has been rendered all but meaningless by this overwhelming calamity, smashing the concepts of moral behaviour. The boy, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, is about 10 years old; his father could almost be any age from 45 to 60. He is bearded, dirty, careworn, and his features and body made gaunt and hard with hunger, sleeplessness and fear. They stumble into the wrecked, deserted supermarkets that are a staple of this kind of story, and even trudge through piles of banknotes: now just useless trash, of course. (Hillcoat actually makes them $100 bills, which I think is overegging it a little.) The two of them are cold all of the time, though the father is capable of almost superhuman efforts to conquer their hardship: at one point he swims into an icy sea in an attempt to scavenge supplies from a wrecked ship.
They are on continuous alert against the marauding gangs of predators who want to kill, imprison or eat them. The father and son can trust no one and Mortensen has relentlessly drilled into the boy the need to guard against the "bad guys", although this has triggered in his son a converse fear that they are becoming the bad guys themselves. He is becoming what passes for a moral conscience in this shattered world, and is perhaps evolving into a sacrificial infant-god. Yet they do have encounters with people who are not obvious enemies: a near-blind old man, played by Robert Duvall, and an unhappy thief, played by Michael K Williams (The Wire's Omar Little).
The two push their tattered possessions and what scraps of food they have in a shopping trolley, emphasising a weird, subliminal resemblance to De Sica's Bicycle Thieves. By far their most precious possession is their gun, which has just two bullets left. When the time comes, the father knows he must steel himself to kill his boy and then himself. If they have to fire the gun in self-defence, it seriously limits their ultimate double-exit strategy.
Apocalyptic movies come into three categories: "This isn't really going to happen", "What if this really happened?" and "This is really going to happen". Roland Emmerich's 2012 comes into the first group, Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men into the second, and Michael Haneke's Time of the Wolf the third. The Road straddles the last two categories, although even Haneke had nothing to compare with the chilling horror of that gun-dilemma in The Road. On the screen, just as on the page, it grips and horrifies because it is so stunningly real. If the end came, and we had to struggle on into a nightmarish world, fearing the living and envying the dead, then suicide would be the only thing on anyone's mind, an option assessed and deferred hour by hour, moment by moment.
It doesn't bear thinking about, and to do Hillcoat's film justice, it does think about it, although the greater emphasis is elsewhere – on the heartrending loneliness of father and son, an unholy trinity of loneliness. The father can't confide in his son; the boy cannot explain his terrors to his father, and the pair of them are utterly alone in this abysmal cosmic wasteland. It is an inexpressibly painful subject and Hillcoat has brought it to the screen with great intelligence.