BEAT Image


By Merle Bertrand | May 18, 2000

They sure didn’t do much writing back in those early days; “they” being the now quasi-mythical American figures — William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac — who formed the core of the titular literary movement after World War II. “Beat,” Gary Walkow’s moody portrayal of the fatal events that brought several of these friends and colleagues together — Kerouac is conspicuously absent — purports to dramatize the events that served as catalysts for their writing. The film opens in 1944 New York City with Lucien Carr (Norman Reedus) and Joan Villmer (Courtney Love) romantically circling each other while Lucien desperately, and eventually lethally, fends off the homosexual advances of their friend Dave. Fast forward to Mexico City in 1951. Burroughs (Kiefer Sutherland) has now married Joan and fathered two children with her, perhaps as a cover to hide his “queerness,” to use the vernacular of the day. Hearing that Ginsberg (Ron Livingston) and Lucien, just out of prison, are on their way for a visit, Burroughs heads off for a rendezvous with a new lover. This leaves a bored Joannie to nurse a bottle of gin while awaiting her guests’ arrival. Hurt by Burroughs’ snub, the visitors take Joannie on a quest for a village buried under volcanic lava; an obvious metaphor to describe Joannie’s suffocating existence if ever there was one. The pas de deux between Lucien and Joan picks up right where it had left off seven years earlier, with the added wrinkle of Ginsburg’s acceptance of his own homosexuality and his growing attraction to Lucien. Unfortunately, much of the suspense is missing for those who know what happened to these people. In addition, while “Beat” amply conveys the undercurrent of sexual tension that pervades and sparks this catty, constantly sparring group of friends, the ensuing leap from these events to their subsequent careers seems rushed and forced. Generally fine performances help keep the film afloat through several tedious moments of angst-overdose, although Sutherland has a disconcerting tendency to play Burroughs as if channeling Jack Nicholson. Beautiful photography, aided by Mexico’s rugged beauty as natural set dressing, also help. In the end, however, none of these people, except, perhaps, for Ginsberg, come across as particularly likable, at least as written here. Instead, “Beat” generally portrays them as whiny intellectual wannabes…which probably explains, more than anything else in the film, why they became such influential writers.

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