Michael Polish's "Big Sur" is a dramatic study in contrasts. The film is set in one of the most beautiful spots in North America, a deep patch of Redwood forest just south of the Bay Area resting on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Sweeping time-lapse shots of the ocean, starscapes and sunlight peeking through magnificent trees are scattered throughout the film, acting as ponderous transitions to mirror the narrative.
The narrative, on the other hand, is bleak, depressing and soul sucking.
"Big Sur" is based on Jack Kerouac's book of the same name, a chronicle of the time he spent communing with nature while trying to cope with alcoholism and the pressures of celebrity.
The film takes place about three years after the publication of Kerouac's masterwork, "On the Road," which has left America thinking of him as a perpetually hitchhiking philosopher in his mid-20s, the king of the Beat Generation, when in reality he is pushing 40 and on the verge of drinking himself into an early grave.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti (played by Anthony Edwards) can see that his friend needs some serious help, so he offers to let Kerouac stay at his cabin in Big Sur while he works things out. But after a few weeks in the great outdoors, Kerouac (played by Jean-Marc Barr) gets bored, and starts to let his wild beatnik life in bit by bit in the form of friends and quick road trips to San Francisco, all fueled by the bottle.
It is fascinating to watch a character move about in such a beautiful place while using every chemical means available to numb himself to its powers. Kerouac is a portrait of misery, constantly hung over, obsessed with death and seemingly determined to sabotage any opportunity he has to enjoy friendship or romantic companionship.
The film is driven by narration taken from passages of Kerouac's own prose, which celebrate the enthusiasm and passion he holds for life while his addictions eat away at his body and mind. When it finally ends, another rapid-fire narration suggests that Kerouac has come to some sort of epiphany, but it is clear his misery will only continue.
Barr does a great job of portraying Kerouac’s weary soul, and "Big Sur" does a great job of showing us just how miserable and nihilistic the life of an alcoholic — even a celebrity beat poet alcoholic — can be. But the journey it begins never quite seems to lead anywhere, no matter how fast the narrator reads Kerouac's overdubs. Then again, that might be more symptomatic of the challenging source material. Ultimately “Big Sur” is an excellent portrait, if not a great story.
It would also be a perfect film to use to discourage teens from the dangers of drinking, but its adult content precludes it. Films at Sundance aren't given ratings, but "Big Sur" contains just enough profanity (three uses of the F-word) and just enough male and female nudity to ensure that it lands in R-rated territory.
Given the subject matter — the effects of alcoholism — and other adult content, this film is definitely not meant for anyone younger than 18.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who also teaches English Composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at www.woundedmosquito.com.