Garrett Hedlund is going to be a star. The last time I felt this way about an actor in a less than stellar spotlight was after catching Heath Ledger in the double feature of 10 Things I Hate About You and A Knight’s Tale. They’re a pair of largely forgettable movies that pop up on cable from time to time, but each film deserves a second look (and tends to steal minutes away from a casual viewing experience) thanks to Ledger and that rugged voice of his. It took Brokeback Mountain to prove me right and of course, his now legendarily memorable turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight (with the posthumous Academy Award just to make sure we never forget him). There’s not a day that goes by when I’m sitting in a screening or watching something on television and I wonder what this “particular” movie would have been like if Ledger had been around.
But there’s hope out there because Hedlund has now slipped into that space Ledger left behind. In Country Strong, he was a quiet marvel, singing and strumming his way through this twang-fest with confidence only the best are born with. Far from a wannabe, Hedlund was already a star; we just didn’t know it yet. He was largely left waiting again in Tron: Legacy because that film was all about the spectacle and well, the legacy of the original film rather than figuring out how to capitalize on a star who, in some intriguing ways, has a good bit in common with Jeff Bridges, the actor who plays his character’s father.
All of this discussion, though, has taken me away from his latest appearance in On the Road, in part because the film, for all of its prestigious pedigree, is another missed opportunity. I caught it in New York City, in late December 2012 at IFC Center. Before the screening, audiences were treated to a special behind-the-scenes teaser about the long, tortuous journey of this particular adaptation. So many hats (Matt Dillon, Johnny Depp) were thrown into the ring, so many creative minds (like Francis Ford Coppola who ended up serving as an executive producer) tinkered and toyed with the material, which has often been deemed unfilmable, but that label, and the mystique of novelist Jack Kerouac, taunts and teases.
But it was the duo behind The Motorcycle Diaries — writer Jose Rivera and director Walter Salles — which tackled the road trip taken by a young Che Guevara, that finally mapped out the trek here, mixing relatively seasoned film travelers (Viggo Mortensen, Steve Buscemi, Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams) with newer faces (Alice Braga, Sam Riley).
Riley, who made quite an impression as Joy Division’s lead singer Ian Curtis in Anton Corbijn’s Control, slips into the driver’s seat as Sal Paradise, the Kerouac role, yet the film begins and ends (or it should) with Hedlund. And he mesmerizes. He is everything that Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady should be, a bullish presence full of charisma and charm. There’s nothing forced about it. The problem is he’s the only person onscreen with anything going and, unfortunately, the story isn’t primarily his. On the Road is about Kerouac and his transformation into the mythic cultural figure we know. Cassady co-pilots the trip, and ably so, but we all know it does/should belong to Paradise/Kerouac.
Hedlund forces Riley out of the driver’s seat. Truthfully, he kicks Riley out of the lead car, into one that’s two or three behind in the rear view. Whether sauntering through scenes naked as the new day or jazzing up the improvisational night music, Hedlund is that guy (The Guy), you know, the one in the bar or at the party that enters and immediately shifts the gravitational pull. There’s no fighting such a force of nature and the moments when he’s missing are dead zones, completely and utterly lifeless.
What is so fascinating about his impact, though, is that we don’t know him yet, not in the tabloid sense or from a collection of roles where he’s defined by star appeal rather than his ability to transmute into a succession of characters. Hedlund’s not a star or a personality (on par with say, Johnny Depp or Jack Nicholson). It’s way too early for that. Maybe Hedlund should pay heed to a co-star like Bridges, a leading man who took the detour off the main highway and enjoyed the scenery. (Opens March 29 at Mariemont Theatre) (R).
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