It is a bio flick, centering around the college years of some of American literature’s greatest minds: Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac. Their story is framed around a little-known murder that took place in 1944. As the film opens, Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) is carrying a body into a river. The film tells you where it is going.
But to get there, we have to go to New Jeresy and get a glimpse at Allen Ginsberg’s home life. Brilliantly portrayed by Daniel Radcliffe, it is a performance that reminds us that Radcliffe is not Harry Potter anymore – and does not want to be. Ginsberg is ready to get away from his family, his poet father Louis (David Cross) and mentally wary mother Naomi (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Their dysfunction has gotten the best of him. He needs to escape and live his own life. His escape comes when he goes to Columbia University.
As a freshman Ginsberg meets Lucien “Lu” Carr. Carr is at the center of this story. His background and his story is just as dysfunctional as the family Ginsberg left behind. It is through Carr that Ginsberg meets the jock Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and the always dapper William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster). The four form a friendship and seek to transform the literary word around through a new movement that would be called the New Vision. The movement will tear down the stuffiness of what was, and give new life to American literature.
Ginsberg is escorted into a world of sex, drugs, and jazz, by exploring parts of New York that his straight-lace roommate from Danville, Virginia tells him to avoid. It does not take long before Ginsberg is missing classes and failing to complete assignments. Nor does it take long before he finds himself in an awkward love triangle with Carr and his older partner David Kammerer (Dexter‘s Michael C. Hall). Kammerer worships Carr. In exchange for companionship and sex Kammerer writes Carr’s papers and other assignments, sometimes going over the required page limits. Kammerer sees Carr’s relationship with Ginsberg and with Kerouac as a potential rivalry.
Ginsberg finds himself falling for Carr in the same way that Kammerer did. However, Ginsberg wants to liberate Carr from the awkward and oppressive relationship he is in with Kammerer. What Ginsberg does not realize is that Carr is playing everyone off of each other. It is only after Carr kills Kammerer, that Ginsberg realizes he has to liberate himself from Carr’s tangled web.
How often do we want to help our friends out to point of taking ourselves down too? It was difficult for Ginsberg to leave Carr behind bars, but in order for Ginsberg to be free himself, he had to let Carr go. There are relationships that come and go, they come for a season and we grow and learn a lot about ourselves in that season. But that season ends, and another season arrives. As hard and difficult as it is, sometimes it is best.