Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 40 min.
Our advisories: Violence 6; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 8.
Our star rating (1-5): 3
Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.
Director John Krokidas’s film is a fascinating take on the early friendship of the Beat Generation’s trio of writers, Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), and William S Burroughs (Ben Foster). And, we must add, Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), the charismatic young rebel who first inspired the Jewish Ginsberg to come out of his reserve to challenge the conventional literary rules and societal morals at Columbia University.
Set in 1943-44, this chronicles the New Jersey-born Ginsberg’s friendship with Carr when Ginsberg and other freshman are being shown through Columbia University’s library. While the guide is touting the Library’s display of masterworks such as The Guttenberg Bible, Carr springs onto a table and mocks the guide by reading aloud a portion from Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, a book so controversial that the US Customs had banned its importation, and a New York publisher who had brought out an illegal American edition was convicted and sent to prison. Carr so enrages the librarian that the student is forcibly removed from the reading room, much to the amusement of Ginsberg.
Soon the two meet, and Carr is introducing his new friend around at the apartment of the pretentious older David Kammerer (Michael C Hall), who takes an instant dislike to Ginsberg. Well he might, for Carr soon is trying to rid himself of the older man, once a professor and his lover, becoming a close companion of Ginsberg. He also introduces Ginsberg to Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, also budding writers but interested as much in pranks and carousing at this time as in literary careers. Ginsberg’s rebellion in his literature class finds him pitted against Professor Stevens who thinks poets must follow rules, which definitely includes meter and rhyme. Ginsberg, whose father was a poet, loves Walt Whitman. The students draw up a manisfesto they call “The New Vision” and rail against the status quo as fascist.
As the students engage in drinking, drugs, and exploring sex, Kammerer keeps following Carr, so obsessed with him that he cannot let him go. This is what leads to murder—and gives a double meaning to the title. The film juxtaposes the brutal stabbing with Burroughs shooting heroin into his body and the inexperienced Ginsberg’s first sexual encounter in the stacks of the library, each increasing the impact of the other. Editors have advised writers who are loathe to trimming the fat from their sentences to “kill your darlings,” but it also applies to the intolerable relationship between the two former lovers.
The film is a well-crafted study of young men seeking to overthrow all restraints in literature and morals, and paying a price for it. There is scarcely a mention of the war against the real fascists raging across the sea, and none of the patriotism displayed by the young men populating Hollywood movies of that time. Although clearly of draftable age, they seem too self-obsessed with making their mark on the world to pay much heed to what is going on the other side of the world.
The film also depicts Ginsberg’s relationship with his poet father Louis and mentally troubled mother Naomi (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to whom he later would pay tribute in his writing. He suffers from guilt when one night he refuses to respond to her desperate telephone call to come and stay with he, leaving her to suffer by herself. He had resisted his father’s intention to place her in a mental institution, but being at college he cannot prevent the elder Ginsberg from committing her. She spends many years in mental wards, so we are glad to see that later, when she has regained at least a portion of her sanity, she is able to assuage it somewhat. Also, the son apparently reconciles with the father, both of them drawn together by their profession of poetry.
People of faith will be taken aback by the values and behavior of the characters, maybe even calling into question their later works so lavishly praised by literary critics. Or, if accepting of their writings, perhaps seeing them as sad examples of human beings but gifting us with works of merit despite the quality of their lives. I had more difficulty in finding an appropriate Scripture to relate to this film than any other this year. Paul’s words seem to apply to Kammerer, unable to walk away from his obsession, and perhaps to the others as well, with their betrayals and legal entanglements of the others as well
For me the main attraction of the film is seeing Daniel Radford move beyond his Harry Potter roles. If there had been any doubts about his ability as an actor, this film will remove them, as well as establishing the other actors also as possessing great talent. Although this is not a film I would want to see again, so filled with the grotesque values of the trio who relished breaking all rules of morality and literature, I am glad that I did.
The full review with a set of questions for reflection or discussion will appear in the December issue of Visual Parables, which will be available toward the end of November or early November.