Michael Polish’s Big Sur reminds us of the Jack Kerouac that we know and love: The booze-drinking, cigarette smoking, insecure, twentieth century Henry David Thoreau. The story takes place in a secluded cabin in the Big Sur forest on California’s coast, a place that Kerouac visit three times in the film, as he hopes to escape the media’s unrealistic caricature of the beat culture. He spends his time observing and experiencing—searching for some sort of transcendent message about the human condition.
At the film’s start, there aren’t really any scenes, only fragments. The story unfolds in a peculiar, continuous montage of events, sensory details and emotions. There are dozens of deep focus, extreme close-ups of the different baubles and slices of natures that Kerouac comes into contact with including, but not limited to cigarettes, typewriters, lamps, gin glasses, spiderwebs and streams. But there are also larger elements to be accounted for: the forest canopy, the pacific ocean and even the starry night sky. The editing is irregular and improvised, purposely so to reflect the jazz influence of the beatnik era, providing an interesting, unpredictable rhythm.
However, as the film progresses, it starts to slow down. The scenes and shots are longer and the pacing becomes more dense and drunken and heavy, as to reflect Jack’s deterioration, emotionally and physically, as he becomes absorbed in his alcoholism.
Jean-Marc Barr’s portrayal of Kerouac is nothing short of brilliant. Barr, a regular cast member in such Lars Von Trier films as Dogtown and Europa, not only captures his subtle self-deprecation and looming sense of uncertainty, he also looks almost identical to the real person. Where Jack Huston, most popular as Richard Harrow on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, plays a young, childish interpretation of Kerouac in this year’s Kill Your Darlings, Barr instead realizes the mature, fully formed, adult Kerouac. But the most profound part of his acting didn’t come in the physical character within the film, but rather in his narration. Kerouac’s words are brought to life as they bravely and drunkenly roll out of the narrator’s deep, raspy, purring mouth.
This is a film that could have easily been dreadfully boring or, at the other end of the spectrum, beatnik fanboy intellectual masturbation turned up to a cartoonish level.
Other members of the ensemble cast include Josh Lucas, Kate Bosworth and Patrick Fischler. Lucas plays Kerouac’s brawny beatnik cohort, Neal Cassady: a man lost somewhere between his wife, Carolyn, and his mistress. The mistress, Billie (Kate Bosworth), is an emotionally unstable mother, with a preschooler son who likes to watch her have sex. Fischler, who you might know as insult stand up comic, Jimmy Barrett, on Mad Men, plays famous poet Lew Welch. These three, as well as the rest of the ensemble, create an unique collage of contrasting ideas and experiences for Kerouac’s character to examine.
Perhaps the best scene in the film is when Jack and his gang of friends each take turns hacking at a log with an ax. “I realized that you can always study the character of a man by the way he chops wood,” the narrator says. He dissects every one his fellow poets and comrades—Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Philip Whalen and Victor Wong along with Welch and Cassidy—picking up on their quirks and insecurities and temperaments.
The narration and dialogue is pulled, almost exclusively, from Kerouac’s novel by the same name, so it isn’t a surprise that the content of the film is incredible. The real task of screenwriter/director Michael Polish comes from the selections of scenes, dialogue and narration he includes. The film does stray from the novel in a few ways. Most notably, it uses the real names of Jack and his friends, rather than the pseudonyms found in the book book. Also, Alan Ginsberg can’t be found anywhere in the movie, most likely so that his character didn’t overshadow Kerouac’s. This is a film that could have easily been dreadfully boring or, at the other end of the spectrum, beatnik fanboy intellectual masturbation turned up to a cartoonish level. Thankfully, it steers clear of both of these extremes and finds a realistic medium. The result, much like Big Sur itself, is a hidden gem
Four Pins Rating: 8.5/10
Matt Rimer is a writer living in Boston. Follow him on Twitter here.