by Dan Sallitt

Published in 24fps, Vol. 5, Issue 2.

(Full disclosure: I’ve become friends with Gary Walkow over the years, and I even receive a thank-you credit on this film, though I’m not quite sure why.)

Gary Walkow’s third feature Beat, based on incidents from the lives of the Beat writers in the forties and fifties, premiered at Sundance 2000 to hostile reviews that killed its chances of theatrical distribution.  Why?  Certainly the film has flaws, and some of them are prominently placed; but are its extraordinary virtues really that hard to spot?

Perhaps the critics weren’t expecting to see a story about the Beats play out amid the urban and rural landscapes of Mexico....  Oh, well, no point in trying to figure it out.  Beat opens with a flash-forward to the infamous “William Tell” incident that cost Joan Burroughs her life in 1951.  Then it reconvenes in 1944 New York, where the poor but exuberant young Beats are partying with a case of benzedrine inhalers that Joan (Courtney Love) has scored.  The social fabric is rent when Dave Kammerer (Kyle Secor) is knifed and killed by charismatic, irresponsible Lucien Carr (Norman Reedus), with whom he was sexually obsessed.  Seven years later, Joan and Bill Burroughs (Kiefer Sutherland) are married with two children, living in Mexico City, coping with their separate chemical dependencies, and not writing much.  Bill’s homosexuality has pushed the marriage to the breaking point; after he leaves for a jaunt to Guatemala with a male lover, Lucien, carefree as ever after a two-year jail sentence, shows up with Allen Ginsberg (Ron Livingston) for a visit.  Attracted and repelled by Lucien’s wavering attentions, Joan hovers on the edge of love, or mere infidelity, or a fresh start back in the U.S.  But despair may have taken root too deeply in her....

Beat doesn’t find its center immediately; the brisk exposition seems to drive Walkow into overstating the characters.  Sutherland’s impersonation of Burroughs’ lockjaw growling swamps the characterization at first, and Reedus tends to overplay Carr’s callowness.  Most conspicuously, Kammerer’s hysterical obsession, the dramatic linchpin of the New York scenes, is hammered home both by the script and Secor’s exaggerated performance.  

As the action shifts to Mexico, however, the overheated drama gives way to reverie.  The Burroughs’ impossible marriage is portrayed with delicacy: unhappiness has made Joan bitter and Bill remote, but alongside the weariness there is mutual respect, the last vestiges of concern, and the occasional lapse back into camaraderie.  The couple’s unorthodox parenting techniques are suggested only in a few throwaway shots: their eldest daughter helpfully tapes rejected pages of prose to the living room wall, then ducks as Burroughs ritualistically destroys them with a slug from a handgun; the children sit mutely in the background, never getting their closeup, as Bill and Joan speculate about their desire to fuck their parents.

It soon becomes clear, however, that this is Joan’s movie.  Burroughs’ humiliating sex holiday with his contemptuous young lover is an unrewarding, one-dimensional digression that Walkow gives short shrift to, the better to follow Joan, Lucien and Allen as they set off to visit the volcano at Paracutin, circling each other endlessly with words and feelings of regret, faint longing, and nameless dread.  Lucien’s seductive behavior toward Joan is sometimes mechanical, sometimes heartfelt; he is awed by Joan, in fear of the commitment that she and her children represent, intimidated by his friendship for Bill.  Joan, more down to earth, sees Lucien’s fickleness and is appalled at how lightly Dave’s killing weighs on him; but the animal attraction between them inspires in her dreams of a better life, even as her destructive mutual dependency with Bill seems to be dragging her beyond the pale.  Allen is by circumstance and by nature an observer, committed to an affection for Lucien that he’ll never act upon, seeing Joan’s trap closing on her but only able to visualize her salvation via the unreliable Lucien’s heterosexual bond with her.  The three watch each other from distances, overhear each other’s intimacies, pair off in all combinations to discuss the absent party; time and again one person withdraws from a conversation, and the camera lingers for a moment of contemplation with the one left behind.  The few actions that do occur change nothing; in this metaphysical Mexican standoff, the will to act is swallowed by the voluptuous mood of time standing still.

No small part of the film’s power is due to Courtney Love’s superb performance.  Actresses like Love, who always bring aspects of their own personality to their roles, tend to be underrated; but she has the gift of existing persuasively on camera, and it’s hard to think of another actor today who conveys intelligence so forcefully.  Walkow is at pains to convey that Joan is the intellectual equal of her more famous peers, but all his literary allusions and snappy dialogue might not have turned the trick without Love’s sly looks of appraisal and her fleeting, amused reactions to her own emotions.  Some of Joan’s dialogue is witty banter that could easily have come across as brittle, but Love keeps a low flame of anger burning under the repartee: when Joan sarcastically says of Lucien’s murder, “I think it’s perversely attractive,” Love conveys a quiet challenge, not a breezy superiority.  Even as Joan’s fate closes in on her, Walkow preserves her lucidity and composure, and Love’s bemused, wry distance from her own pain brings out the pathos in the uninflected narrative.

To this viewer’s eye, Beat is one of the most visually beautiful films in recent years.  Walkow’s modernist widescreen compositions are gloriously old-fashioned, reminiscent of the look of Vincente Minnelli or Nicholas Ray’s fifties melodramas.  Partial to slightly elevated or depressed camera angles, Walkow maps out the spatial tension in even the shallowest set, composing around triangles of characters and using short lenses to open up the space between foreground and background.  And Ciro Cabello’s rich, primary-color, high-contrast lighting is an infinitely more exciting and romantic evocation of period than the dreary reduced color schemes that Hollywood and Indiewood alike seem to favor.  The visual highlight of the film is an idyllic river swimming scene worthy of Murnau, shot mostly from above to emphasize the expanse of glistening water, broken into a series of discrete downstream movements separated by dissolves, turned melancholy by Ernest Troost’s beautiful score, starting with the promise of sex and ending with Joan peering into her own private hell.