Featuring: Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Michael C. Hall, Jack Huston, Ben Foster, Elizabeth Olsen
Director: John Krokidas
Writer: John Krokidas, Austin Bunn
Australian release date: Thursday 5 December
Verdict: A flawed but intriguing and well-performed dramatisation of an overlooked Beat backstory.
Awkward young Columbia University freshman Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) falls under the spell of charismatic classmate and literary iconoclast Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), who introduces him to a bohemian world of eccentrics, subversives and reprobates, including William Burroughs (Ben Foster), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and the older David Kammerer ((Michael C. Hall). Kammerer is hopelessly and obsessively infatuated with Carr, who tries unsuccessfully to sever ties, then murders him in a fit of pique and resentment. Ginsberg, Burroughs and Kerouac become enmeshed in the subsequent police investigation.
Anyone interested in the Beats will find this biopic intriguing, both for the story of the Kammerer murder and its part in the genesis of the Beat movement, and the portrayal of the young Ginsberg.
Daniel Radcliffe manages his role as Ginsberg pretty well, effecting a speedy but credible transformation from shy freshman awed by the rarefied academic milieu at Columbia to one of the core members of Lucien Carr’s rebellious set of jazz-diggin’ booze and benny-fuelled libertines, whose mission apart from excessive partying is to enforce literary regime change, even sans a draft of the manifesto they propose to install once they’ve torn down the Establishment walls. Just one gripe: Radcliffe is too good-looking a Ginsberg, who was an ugly little bugger in reality. Just sayin’.
Lucien Carr is the Brian Jones of the Beats, bringing the key figures of the movement together without contributing much apart from style and attitude. He’s also Ginsberg’s agent of change. As a queue of brand new freshman including Ginsberg trail dutifully behind a lecturer leading them through Columbia’s literary holy of holies – displays in glass cases of priceless early manuscripts of works by Shakespeare, Chaucer et al – Carr makes a dramatic entrance, leaping on a table and reciting Henry Miller with lewd relish. Ginsberg is entranced; the die is cast…
Dane DeHaan is compelling as Carr, all too aware of his youthful beauty and the power that derives from it, but abusive of his natural advantages and scathingly ironic in expressing disdain for almost everything and everyone. He’s a lethal seducer, manipulating and wrecking, a male siren with magnetic, icy, pale blue eyes, systematically and cruelly killing his darlings one by one. Nothing is sacred to this iconoclast.
By contrast, Ginsberg battles with his conscience throughout, with Carr his dark angel leading him into temptation and confronting him with a series of moral dilemmas. For example, a distress call from his mother, deep in psychosis, he uncharacteristically pushes aside, shrugging off his caregiver mantle in favour of accompanying Carr to a party at Kammerer’s apartment. It’s a fortuitous decision. At the party he encounters Burroughs for the first time, lying in a bathtub with a respirator on, inhaling from a cylinder of nitrous oxide (gotta chuckle at that). His mother, subsequently institutionalised, feels betrayed and blames him for her condition, and back he slumps into his burdened state.
But not for long. His quest for personal, creative and sexual liberation is underway, and it’s all too exciting to turn back.
The development of the relationship between Ginsberg and Carr is well-handled, mercifully defying expectations. The other relationship at the heart of the film, between Carr and Kammerer, lurches from crisis to crisis, but is developed between the lines of the main narrative, which is set around Ginsberg and his fellow literary revolution aspirants.
Their challenge to the Establishment doesn’t amount to much more than student hi-jinx. The crew break into Columbia library to steal limited-access literature (all the good banned stuff, presumably). They are sprung by some security guards who STUPIDLY pursue them by torchlight. Why not just switch the goddamn lights on? What price dramatic tension! Anyway, they replace Columbia Uni’s glass-encased canonical manuscripts with Henry Miller and other underground heroes specialising in the sexually explicit, rip up books from Kammerer’s prized collection and paste torn pages on a pin-up board. Yeah, all iconoclastic youth art movements are entitled – obliged, in fact – to disrespect and attack The Establishment, but sometimes it’s hard not to roll the eyes.
There’s a bit of parenthetical intellectual wrangling and debate between the main players, Ginsberg, Carr and a rather doltish and barely sketched Kerouac. Burroughs chimes in with a few sage words here and there, but there’s a pretentious feel about a lot of the exchanges. Then again, what youth art movement is not pretentious, especially where poets are involved? Goes with the territory. So, forgivable I suppose.
The sexism that is rampant in a lot of the Beat work is on show here, too. Sign of the times, sure, but did they have to make the female characters so pliable? Kerouac has just emerged from his sailor days, and comes across as a bit of a macho dummy, a ladies man who generally prefers getting on the piss with the boys, leaving the lil woman fuming at home. But hey, no probs there. Redemption is always only a few smooth cooing words away.
In one scene, he’s shown charming the pants off a librarian with a couple of apparently irresistible lines. Snap o the fingers and she’s his. Poor ol’ gay Ginsberg then tries to duplicate the feat with one of her colleagues (the purpose being distraction; Carr and company are casing the joint). The gal behind the desk is so brainless and over-sexed, she falls for Ginsberg’s seduction lines and fellates him in between aisles of books. Not funny. Silly. He only gets off because he sees pretty boy Carr watching on – a deft little twist, but it doesn’t make up for what precedes it.
The drama ramps up when the murder occurs, and climaxes with Carr behind bars confronting Ginsberg with the most challenging of the moral dilemmas that have beset him throughout (no elaboration, no spoil).
Despite its lapses, this flick is worth a look. For Beat fans, especially, it’s an intriguing and generally well-performed dramatisation of a backstory that has been overlooked by filmmakers until now.
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