‘Big Sur’ meditates on the troubled recklessness of Jack Kerouac
Directed by Michael Polish
Written by Michael Polish
A melancholic exploration of Jack Kerouac’s mind during his trips to poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s remote cabin on the pacific coast, Big Sur quietly captivates with a moody mix of striking scenery and rapid-fire narration. Kerouac used his prose to break away from the repressive stranglehold of mid-20th century American values and became one of the freewheeling heroes of the Beat Generation. Finding tremendous acclaim as a rebellious writer, celebrity was surprisingly something he didn’t desire and struggled desperately to escape. The pensive focus of this film is the serious depression and consequential alcoholism of a genius bent on self-destruction. Big Sur takes takes a hard look at Kerouac’s deterioration following the wild success of the novel “On the Road” and is almost entirely composed of his anxiety-ridden introspection. This brooding, despair laden story might prove to be too much for some viewers but hits just the right notes for Kerouac devotees and filmgoers appreciative of a realistically composed account of mental illness.
What Kerouac (Jean-Marc Barr of Dogville) needs to survive is someone who will definitively tell him no to excess and curb any impulses which take him away from productivity. Sadly his ego allows no one like that into his life save Ferlinghetti (Anthony Edwards), a friend who gently tries to be his savior by providing him with isolation from the world. With the ups and downs of alcoholism, he is particularly vulnerable to the kindness of omnipresent friends and admiring strangers who want to buy him endless drinks in celebration of a staggering accomplishment. In and out of his new west coast life come a group of literary friends and young Beatnik tag-a-longs who sometimes follow him to soak in the sublime beauty of the wild at the cabin. The bitingly articulate voice-over from Barr originates from Kerouac’s words in the autobiographical “Big Sur.” That these racing, depressive thoughts are faithfully from true-life sojourns and the only subject he felt worthy to write about are telling of how absolutely lost he was. Barely cognizant of those around him, he often ends up meandering listlessly about vast and luminous scenes of nature. The audience is so firmly entrenched in a never-ending torrent of contemplation inside his headspace that its jarring when Barr actually speaks out loud. His physical performance may have been great given a better length of uninterrupted screen time but he and the other actors take a backseat to the spoken word. Side characters are so under utilized that we aren’t able to see them as more than fleeting encounters that serve to deepen despondency. There aren’t many confrontations or meaningful interactions discussed seriously outside of his mind, so one finds that Kerouac’s biggest enemy and greatest inspiration are himself.
The dazzlingly filmed ocean, forest and sky elucidate the troubled reasoning of the brilliant writer. His inability to help himself or let thoughts about death alone make for a chaotic ride. Violently crashing waves movingly and metaphorically heighten a sense of Kerouac’s declining health. Up against the endlessness of the universe, he appears small and examines his insignificance in compelling detail. Even though he is hard to like as an addict who carelessly mistreats women wanting to care for him, his bold assertions about life wash over the viewer in tandem with scenes of nature to create a deeply sympathetic affect.
Michael Polish’s direction is confident as we look into the dark recesses of the artist’s soul. Several time-lapse sequences of the star-crowded night sky are particularly gorgeous, capturing the wondrous awe of the world that Kerouac both reveres and mocks when questioning why suffering exists. We see that the vivaciousness which spurred the Beats to write, explore and break down social boundaries ends up slowly killing Kerouac- a man who didn’t know how to stop constantly overthinking things. That Jack just yearns to live freely but finds it impossible due to existential worries and critical renown is wrenching. Polish audaciously giving Kerouac’s words prominence over everything make the movie unquestionably unique and worth the watch for those who want to overwhelmed.
– Lane Scarberry