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PARK CITY — Book-ending the festival with films about the origins and outcomes of the Beat literary movement, Sundance presented the world premiere of writer-director Michael Polish’s Big Sur, adapted from one of Jack Kerouac’s final novels, following the unveiling of John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings earlier in the fest.
A moody, complex and sometimes surreal meditation on the artistic process, aging and death, the film impressionistically weaves together some of the more literary passages from the novel with depictions of the actual events incorporated into the plot. Potentially a very specialized item indeed, Polish’s track record will nonetheless assure theatrical play, although the film might pose marketing challenges for a game distributor.
Written in 1960, just a few years after the smash success of On the Road, the equally autobiographical Big Sur finds Kerouac (Jean-Marc Barr) trying to escape the renown brought on by that iconic work for the serenity of the northern California coast, after fellow writer Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Anthony Edwards) offers him the use of his cabin in the redwoods.
At first, he revels in the solitude and beauty of the setting, enjoying long hikes through the forest and walks along wild stretches of undeveloped beach. It’s not long, however, before he’s driven back to San Francisco by loneliness and alcohol dependency, falling in with his familiar beatnik crowd, which includes Ferlinghetti, Michael McLure (Balthazar Getty), Lew Welch (Patrick Fischler), Phil Whalen (Henry Thomas), Neal Cassady (Josh Lucas) and his wife Carolyn (Radha Mitchell).
After going on another bender and again feeling persecuted by his own celebrity, Kerouac gathers a group of friends to return to the Big Sur cabin for another stint of partying and literary indulgence. This proves to be the most entertaining portion of the film, as the group of writers resumes their old camaraderie and rivalries, exulting in the natural beauty of the region. “I’m really happy for the first time in three years,” Kerouac comments about their bucolic sojourn. After returning to the city, Cassady introduces Kerouac to his lover Billie (Kate Bosworth), a single mother with a young son.
Their passionate relationship at first proves a distraction from drinking, but before long, Kerouac is bingeing again and feels the need to return to the cabin with Billie, her son Lew and his girlfriend. This final segment portrays Kerouac succumbing to the ravages of alcoholism, suffering mental and emotional delusions, and barely able to get out of the cabin as his relationship with Billie begins disintegrating.
Polish takes a layered approach to adapting Kerouac’s novel, giving Barr extensive passages from the book to recite in voiceover. The first 10 minutes of the film are entirely without dialogue, as Polish attempts to establish the sense of reverie that Kerouac feels at Ferlinghetti’s cabin, with Barr reading from the author’s prose. These interludes continue throughout the film, providing a stream of consciousness framework that emotionally contextualizes the fairly thin plot developments. It’s an effective technique, particularly when paired with lyrical visual passages depicting the sometimes savage allure of the region. So much of the novel consists of this type of internal monologue, however, that plot developments become almost secondary, contributing to noticeable pacing issues, particularly in the second act.
Visually the film is a pleasure to watch, with Polish and cinematographer M. David Mullen contrasting the rich blues and greens of the Big Sur exteriors with the burnished glow of the sunlit or firelit cabin interiors, or layering an almost sepia-toned patina onto the San Francisco segments. In particular, the outdoor scenes set in the redwoods or on windy beaches necessitate making rather demanding camera setups and movements look natural and spontaneous.
Barr appears to effortlessly adapt to Polish’s depiction of Kerouac as a conflicted mix of literary aloofness and physical suffering. His jazzy line readings of the author’s prose resonate with the spontaneity of the original novel, immensely enhancing the sense of this literary world. Bosworth is sexy, vulnerable and finally unyielding as his lover, painfully reaching the realization that Kerouac will never romantically commit to her. Lucas can’t quite manage to nail Cassady’s manic energy, however, and Mitchell is wasted as his long-suffering wife, who in fact played a pivotal role in Kerouac and Cassady’s relationship later in life.
Filming a truly immersive and dimensional adaptation of a Kerouac novel remains an ongoing challenge for any filmmaker, but Polish’s film comes closer than most, while adding another layer of complexity to the author’s venerable reputation.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival, Premieres
Production company: 3311 Productions
Cast: Jean-Marc Barr, Kate Bosworth, Josh Lucas, Radha Mitchell, Anthony Edwards, Balthazar Getty, Patrick Fischler, Stana Katic, Henry Thomas, John Robinson
Director-writer: Michael Polish
Producers: Orian Williams, Jacobson, Adam Kassen, Michael Polish
Executive Producers: Jim Sampas, Mark Roberts, Eddie Vaisman, Donal Logue
Director of photography: M. David Mullen
Production designer: Max Biscoe
Costume designer: Bic Owen
Music: Bryce Dessner, Aaron Dessner
Editors: Robert Frazen, Geraud Brisson
No rating, 90 minutes
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