Michael C. here. Walter Salles’s big-screen adaptation of Kerouac’s On the Road is set for limited release December 21, but I fear that if people aren't buzzing about this one before Christmas then there's a real risk that one of the year’s best performances will be lost amid talk of Hobbits and show tunes sung live on set. So to prevent that happening I’m going to get the ball rolling right now: Garrett Hedlund deserves to be nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
Sam Riley may be the lead as Kerouac stand-in Sal Paradise, but the character is something of a cipher, passive and observant and taking notes the whole time. As Dean Moriarty, based on beat generation figure Neal Cassady, Hedlund has the star part. He drives the action. He is the guy who everyone talks about when he’s off-screen and is the unquestioned center of attention when on-screen. It's a daunting role. Hedlund needs to make Moriarty a solipsistic, libido-driven egomaniac that makes a wreck of all his relationships while at the same time have him be so irresistibly brilliant and charming that we believe it when all the other characters are attracted to him despite this behavior. It’s not for nothing that Kerouac originally wanted Marlon Brando for the role.
Hedlund delivers big on all these counts and makes it all seem effortless. In one electric scene he lets fly with an impromptu monologue about a party that evolved into a bizarre orgy, and you can feel the whole story skipping right off the surface of Dean's Benzedrine-addled mind.
Any film of On the Road is going to rise or fall based on the character of Dean. The character embodies all the novels romantic deals about the excitement of the open highway as well as the story's tragic grace notes when the road trip ends. That this adaptation works as well as it does suggests that voters need to find room among all the beloved veterans for one of 2012's breakout stars.