Last year’s much-anticipated adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” may have landed softly, but the Beat goes on at Sundance this year: Premiering days after “Kill Your Darlings” shed light on the renegade author’s college years, Michael Polish’s “Big Sur” offers an elegantly muted take on the midlife ennui of Kerouac’s autobiographical 1962 novel. A typically atmospheric effort from the “Northfork” director — here working without twin brother Mark — this oblique, episodic study of a writer (Jean-Marc Barr, effectively if unexpectedly cast) seeking refuge from his own success is strictly an arthouse proposition, but should stimulate Kerouac and Polish acolytes alike.
“Unfilmable” is an adjective that has time and again been proven irrelevant by resourceful visual storytellers, but Kerouac’s dense stream-of-consciousness prose presents more challenges to filmmakers than most. Aware that Kerouac’s relentless patter doesn’t allow a screenwriter much tonal coloring space, Polish makes a gutsy decision in giving his film almost entirely over to an utterly singular authorial voice, relating lengthy passages from the novel in voiceover — with Barr reasonably approximating the odd inflections of the Kerouac drawl.
It’s a gamble that is less likely to pay off with non-devotees of the literature at hand. Polish may well have made the truest stab yet at bringing Kerouac’s artistry to the screen, but the reliance on internal monologue — often at the expense of any dialogue whatsoever — does give the film a faintly airless quality, not leavened by the terminal solipsism of Kerouac’s alter ego Jack Duluoz. Those largely unacquainted with the preoccupations and affectations of Beat philosophy would be advised to start elsewhere.
The film opens with Duluoz in an agitated mental state, still unequipped to deal with the recognition (and subsequent pressure) heaped upon him in the wake of his breakthrough novel’s success. When fellow writer Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Anthony Edwards) offers him the use of his remote forest cabin in California’s Big Sur district, he achieves short-lived inner peace before the spurs of loneliness and alcoholism hasten his return to San Francisco.
The loose narrative then proceeds on a rinse-and-repeat basis. Feeling burnt out once more, Duluoz travels back to Big Sur, this time with a crowd of literary peers — including his dissolute, married pal Neal Cassady (Josh Lucas), who introduces Duluoz to his mistress, Billie (Kate Bosworth). It’s not long before Duluoz and Billie are romantically entwined, albeit rockily so. Once more, the writer’s personal demons sabotage his happiness: Cue a third trip to Big Sur, in which Duluoz reflects on his errors and effectively calls time on the Beat generation.
Seventy-four minutes is about the right running time for this slender but stately narrative, largely a one-man show in the name-heavy guise of an ensemble piece. Among the secondary characters, only Lucas — caddish and surprisingly affecting as Cassady — registers as a self-standing personality.
Beyond the confines of Kerouac’s imagination, the most striking artistic presence in “Big Sur” may well be American art-rock collective the National, whose fraternal founding members, Bryce and Aaron Dessner, composed the film’s excellent score: The distinctively mournful grandiosity of their compositions serves the author’s elegiac vision while introducing a contemporary note to this stylishly appointed period piece. All other tech credits, notably M. David Mullen’s somber lensing, are as fastidiously restrained as one might expect of a Polish production.