On the Road has been dismissed by critics for being too vague in its storytelling. Filmmaker Walter Salles’ movie captures the crazy enthusiasm for living that Jack Kerouac sought as he went on a journey across the country while gathering material and writing his novel in the late 1940s.
Sam Riley plays the Kerouac stand-in character, Sal Paradise. At one point of On the Road, he states Kerouac’s immortal line, “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding spiders across the stars…”
This Kerouac homage doesn’t aim to be a hip movie. It doesn’t drop any names. Instead, Salles focuses on the tone of what Kerouac was writing about, which was the urge for experience that drove the young writer to surrender himself to the road in an instant. He was also writing about people he knew. Characters in the book represented his famous friends, such as Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Neal Cassady.
The men radiate the life force to the young writer who traveled with or to them over the period of several years. He and his friends went across the country in the years before there were interstate highways in rickety cars with only pennies in their pockets.
On the Road is about the search for freedom that mainstream culture doesn’t provide and wouldn’t allow. It is not defined in Kerouac’s book or Salles’ movie yet it radiates a vague yearning for something different or something that values artistic impulse over daily work ethic.
On the Road utilizes subtle and at times jumpy storytelling. The movie is something for people looking for something different. Fans of the book will enjoy it.