Sex and drugs before rock and roll
It's 1951 and famed writer William S. Burroughs and his wife Joan are living as expatriates in Mexico. Bill is a closeted homosexual. He plays sugar daddy to a boy toy friend who provides perverse pleasures on a purely contractual basis. Joan raises the couple's children and longs for the days back in New York when the Beat literary movement first took shape. As her husband heads off for another illicit tryst, poet Allen Ginsberg and friend Lucien Carr visit Joan. With not much at the Casa de Burroughs to do except drink and feel sorry for themselves, the threesome heads off to the countryside to view a smoldering volcano. But soon, old passions and present predicaments cloud the reunion as everyone is haunted by a horrible, brutal act of violence committed years ago. And as lives lost and longing collide one final time, tragedy weighs heavy in the air for all the parties involved.
Beat is the kind of movie that oozes self-conscious significance and importance. It doesn't dwell on details or in-depth character analysis. In truth, the players are hardly important to the story. Dialogue is trimmed to such a bare minimum that every line rings with a kind of heavy handed melodramatic shorthand. But it all ends up being mundane sounds with entirely no fury, signifying absolutely naught. Beat is a film riddled with beautiful locations, expert directing, and brilliant performances that is completely derailed by an atrocious, underwritten script. There is a king's ransom in material to draw from in the persons and places portrayed. William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and the rest of the Beat writers were a literary call to arms, an attempt to shake up not just writing, but the very idea of the written word. So much could be made of their story, their struggle, their stance against society and sexual norms. But Beat suffers from the ridiculously narrow focus that writer/director Greg Walkow chooses to explore. We learn nothing about the Beats as creators. We learn only snippets of how and why they met and maintained their friendships. Either the film assumes knowledge on our part or it feels that who they are really doesn't matter: it's the type they represent that's significant. But the script is just not strong enough to support this proposition. The jumbled, time shifting format where individuals break in and out of flashback and asides merely confuses an already mixed message. Who and what we are supposed to care about is never explained or even hinted at and the ending, which is supposed to combine many themes into one dramatic, violent moment dies as pathetically and anticlimactically as the character involved.
It doesn't help that the acting is uniformly exceptional. You can see the performers literally struggling to find significance and relevance in the stilted, ambiguous conversations they are having. Kiefer Sutherland is an eye-opener as Burroughs, disappearing into the role of a man who seems to store every incident in his sad, strange eyes, only to empty them later as a device for shaping his life into fiction. Over time, Donald's son has matured into a performer of quiet grace and depth. You sense that a far better film could have been made simply by focusing on Sutherland as Burroughs and his literary, lewd, and litigious life. But alas, he is an ancillary character to the main, meandering trio at the center of Beat. As Burroughs' confused, sexually unfulfilled wife Joan, Courtney Love exudes depressed sensuality and unrequited dreams, but never clarifies her character. She's more of a sketch than an actual, real life person. As Ginsberg, Ron Livingston is good at suggesting, not inhabiting the famous poet's troubled persona. Only Norman Reedus, as catalyst to the Beats Lucien Carr (he introduced them to each other and the events surrounding his imprisonment for two years seems to have left a deep, emotional life scar for them all) is indistinct, portraying lust and yearning with a detached squint that makes him appear hopelessly out of touch instead of heartsick. Beat is not a bad film, it's just not a satisfying one. An exhaustive, comprehensive study of just one of these characters would have been better then this skim across the surface of one of the most influential groups of authors from the 20th century. You can't fault Walkow's camera. It lingers around the corners of the action like an interloper to a secret party. He even creates majestic moments in simple framing and stylized compositions. But while drop dead gorgeous to look at (thank cinematographer Ciro Cabello) Beat is a bore to sit through.
Lions Gate deserves some credit for treating the visual feast this film provides with a halfway decent transfer. Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, there is only minimal pixelation that occurs when the screen fades to black. Otherwise, the colors are electric and the photography really adds to the ambience that the director tries to achieve. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo soundtrack is also excellent, as is the musical score it presents. Ernest Troost is to be commended for creating a modern mix of ethereal new age keyboards with broad, temporally appropriate musical cues. At times, the aural presentation outshines what the characters are saying. As for extras, there is a set of hidden trailers that can be accessed by highlighting the Lions Gate logo. Beat looks to have been severely cut based on the sequences shown in this preview. There is also a gallery, which takes the unusual stance of focusing on very artistic representations of the set and production, instead of publicity minded media. Lastly, there is a commentary track featuring director Walkow and co-editor Steve Vance. It's a highly technical, apologetic look at the creation of this low budget film and explains the massive script and editing alterations that were made to simply achieve a finished product. While it would have been nice to get some of the actors involved, this insider's view of the production illuminates the reasons behind the film's real narrative flaws. Beat is that stalwart of the off-title DVD universe: the lost possibility. Something intriguing and dynamic could have been made out these characters and their special, stained artistic souls. Instead, there is nothing to "howl" about in this tepid view of the Beatniks founding fathers.
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• Commentary Track with Director Greg Walkow and Co-Editor Steve Vance
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