In 1951, a young, iconoclastic writer named Jack Kerouac hunkered down and typed for three weeks straight. So infused with passion was Kerouac for his semi-autobiographical novel, On the Road, that he taped pieces of paper together so he wouldn't have to stop typing—a process as madly manic as the equally manic, devil-may-care exploits his culturally influential story chronicles.
Shortly after the book was published in 1957, Kerouac began to envision bringing it to the big screen. He even invited Marlon Brando to consider starring in it. Brando never responded. Nearly 56 years later, Kerouac's dream of turning On the Road into a movie has been realized … 44 years after he died at the age of 47 due to alcoholism-induced cirrhosis of the liver.
Kerouac's story projects him into the earnest, in-the-moment psyche of his literary alter ego Sal Paradise. In the wake of his father's recent death, Sal has given himself utterly to the idea of being a writer. And to write, one must have experience. And the more experiences one has, the better. If those experiences are extreme, far outside the boundaries of culture's prevailing norms and mores, so be it.
Sal carries a small notebook with him everywhere he goes, lest he forget anything. And he has lots of opportunities to forget things.
Sal's muse is an acquaintance named Dean Moriarty. Dean is a beguiling force of nature, working his intoxicating magic on virtually everyone who wanders across his path. When Sal first meets him, Dean has already married a 16-year-old girl from Denver (named Marylou) who's nearly as wild as Dean is. She's almost as likely to end up in bed with someone else as Dean is, and she's eager to roll a joint (or six) when it's time to party.
Soon Dean, Sal and Marylou find themselves hurtling across the country—on the road, as it were—in Dean's hulking Hudson. New York. Denver. San Francisco. The deep South. Mexico. And as they go, they draw other would-be thrill seekers into their mobile soiree.
Occasionally they have moments of clarity—such as when Marylou decides she's had quite enough of Dean. Most of the time, though, Sal, Dean, Marylou and Co. are more interested in carnal pursuits than they are in clarifying just where, exactly, their morality-free journey is actually taking them.
Marylou divorces Dean—a decision that really can only be seen as a good thing in the context of a rancid relationship that includes him openly having sex with so many other women. In a quiet moment she confesses to Sal that all she really wants is to get married, have a baby and own a home. "You know," she adds, "something normal. I really do want that." She eventually takes leave of the nonstop party and does in fact get married (we hear) to a soldier who can give her what she longs for.
Dean gets married again to Camille. Though wild at first, Camille also wearies of Dean's antics after they have a baby. Twice she tells him to leave and never come back—though at the end she writes him a letter saying that she and their two children would love to spend the rest of their lives with him if he would be willing to return to them in San Francisco. For his part, Dean looks longingly at a picture of his daughter at one point, and he seems genuinely proud to be her daddy. (But his addiction-prone, boundary-demolishing, hedonistic personality makes being a good dad impossible, and soon he's on the road again.)
Both Dean and Sal have major unresolved father issues that, it could be interpreted, are closely connected to their rebellious attempts to find meaning in life. Dean tells Sal that he sat with a gun to his head for hours, trying to commit suicide, but just couldn't go through with it. He says he also asked Marylou to shoot him, but she wouldn't do it either. Obviously, that's not positive. But it does reveal the fact that once in a great while Dean comes face-to-face with the gaping emptiness inside.
Sal's friend Old Bull rightly diagnoses Dean as a manipulative taker who will never do anything but use other people to accomplish his narcissistic pursuit of pleasure.
One of Dean and Sal's good friends is a passionate, gay poet named Carlo, who at one point exclaims that God isn't "out there," but that "he's right here in the dirt. He's an ape like us." Carlo later appropriates language related to Jesus' crucifixion while describing his own struggles, saying he was pierced, that he perished and that he's since been resurrected. Someone says that our lives our a gift, "the only gift that the Lord never offers us a second time."
Dean insists that when a jazz saxophonist finds the right zone, the resulting music opens the door to a metaphysical moment. He "hits it," Dean says, and "time stops," creating a sense of "infinite feeling." It's noted that "Dean drives like Satan." In Mexico we glimpse Catholic imagery featuring Jesus and Mary.
On the Road could have just as easily been called On the Bed. It rarely goes more than a handful of minutes before trudging its way into another sex scene of some kind, exposing moviegoers to explicit sexual movements, sounds and breast nudity.
When Sal first meets Dean, Dean's naked in bed with Marylou (who is topless). They've just been having sex. We also see them as a sexual threesome. Marylou kisses both men passionately, and it's implied that she has sex with each of them. Dean goes into graphic detail describing a foursome. Camille is shown covering her chest after she and Dean have sex.
It's visually implied that Marylou performs oral sex on Dean while he's driving. She unzips Sal's pants to manually stimulate him. She sits naked between Sal and Dean as they drive, manually stimulating both of them at the same time. (All three are naked; we see bare shoulders and movements.) Marylou and another woman coach a third woman to effectively use oral sex to get what she wants from her man.
Carlos says he's in love with Dean and that they've had sex. We see them kiss. When he leaves to go to Africa, he says he hopes to find black men to have similar encounters with. Dean agrees to have sex with an older man for money, an act Sal watches through a partially open door as the camera shows Dean on top of the man making explicit sexual movements.
A guy's scrotum is visible as he walks around naked. Sal and Dean visit a brothel; sex is implied, and one woman wears a gauzy shirt that reveals her breasts.
Dean drives recklessly throughout the film. When he gets pulled over by a police officer, he spits, "I wish I had a f‑‑‑ing gun."
Crude or Profane Language
About 15 f-words and close to that many s-words. Other vulgarities (used several times each) include "a‑‑," h‑‑‑," "b‑‑ch" and "p‑‑‑." We hear many crude references to both the male and female anatomy, and one obscene slang term for someone who performs oral sex. God's name is misused six or eight times, often with "d‑‑n." Jesus' name is abused two or three.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Characters drink and smoke—alternately marijuana and cigarettes—in virtually every scene. They sometimes do so while driving. In Mexico, Sal and Dean share a marijuana joint that's the size of a small banana.
Twice characters abuse the (now defunct) prescription drug Benzedrine, which involves breaking open a dispenser of the amphetamine inhaler and putting the drug-drenched strip of paper inside on their tongues for a stimulant high.
Other Negative Elements
Dean, Sal and Marylou steal food from convenience stores. Dean steals a car.
Dean abandons Sal in a Mexican hotel room when Sal's very sick with dysentery. Later, Sal refuses to help Dean, who's clearly drunk, destitute and homeless when he shows up unexpectedly in New York City (after Sal has begun to have some success as a writer).
Hitchhiking is just something you casually do when you don't have a vehicle of your own. And during a ride in the back of a farm truck, several men urinate off the back.
On the Road is considered by some to be one of the most important American novels of the 20th century. After its publication, Jack Kerouac would become one of the most significant figures of the Beat Generation, a group of writers including Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs whose countercultural ethos would pave the way for the cultural revolution of the 1960s.
As influential as Kerouac's work might have been, however, his vision of unbridled hedonism here is ultimately a devastating dead end. In pursuit of "truth" and experience, Kerouac's characters deny themselves nothing. The good life is defined as one with no boundaries or limitations or responsibilities. In practical terms, mostly that means having as much sex and ingesting as many drugs and different alcoholic beverages as possible in pursuit of liberation from conventional society's perceived constrictions.
It's telling, of course, that each of these people ends up in bondage. That the only ones who perhaps attain a modicum of real meaning and freedom are Marylou and Camille, who eventually realize that the hedonistic way of life they've embraced leaves them with nothing.
Not that Kerouac (or the makers of the movie) wanted this to be a cautionary tale. Because as bleak and grungy as this film is, it's crystal clear that Sal refuses to regret any of the experiences he's so diligently chronicled. Ultimately, he seems unwilling to admit how empty his way of life is—and he doesn't want his audience to go there either.
A postscript: Ordinarily, gritty, explicit independent fare like On the Road doesn't gain much traction at the mainstream, mall-based box office. This film, however, stars Kristen Stewart as Marylou, which may lure a generation of Twilight fans to see what their beloved Bella is up to in her latest role. Hopefully this review's notations of exactly what she is up to will help families navigate that.