The time is evidently right for ‘Beat Generation’ movies, perhaps as the group’s members are all sadly departed.
While feature débuting co-writer/director John Krokidas’ film comes a year after Walter Salles’ longtime-coming adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, this is more a kind of ‘origins story’, the facts of which haunted the Beats ever after. Drawn from both the accepted truth and Kerouac and William Burroughs’ suppressed-for-decades novel And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks (published after their deaths as no one, including them, liked it much), this is mostly seen from the perspective of the young, ;naïve and awkward Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe, rather daringly), who leaves an in denial dad (David Cross) and a delusional mum (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to attend Columbia University in 1944. Immediately falling in with the unpredictable Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), with whom he becomes (very) close, the pair tear up literary classics, rob the library of ‘restricted’ titles and get high on Benzedrine with Burroughs (Ben Foster) and, after a while, returning serviceman Kerouac (Jack Huston, also in the similarly bookish Night Train to Lisbon). Also in the picture is David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall, AKA Dexter, in a more vocal performance than we’ve seen him in ages), who’s increasingly obsessed with Carr and will do anything to keep him close, even as his object of affection is trying hard to free himself from anything and everything. Depicting a time just before the end of World War II, a period pre-rock’n’roll and pre-Ginsberg’s Howl when the Beats’ rebellion was taking shape and establishing how to truly shock The Establishment, Krokidas’ film takes a wisely neutral view of the tale, meaning that we get to both revel in the lads’ transgressions and see how all this indulgence can turn sour. The performances are fine: Foster (not as grotesque as usual) is a pitch-perfect, drug-addled Burroughs; DeHaan a wonderfully horny and dangerous Carr; Huston a cockily charismatic Kerouac; and Hall, stuck with the most unsympathetic role, manages to make Kammerer far more than some whiny spurned lover. Then there’s Radcliffe, so desperate to kill that darling Harry Potter, whose Ginsberg is the film’s heart, soul and hormones, and who’s very strong, whether he’s snogging the librarian, hallucinating wildly in a jazz joint or, ahem, auto-eroticising as he belts out his first poems in a frenzy. Howl indeed.