This is a film about the events that led up to the murder of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr on August 13th, 1944. It's based on the book "And the hippos were boiled in their tanks", co-written by William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac in 1945, but not published until 2008 after Carr's death. Burroughs and Kerouac were both closely acquainted with the case, because Carr confessed to them immediately after the murder, but he used lies in his defence in court, so Burroughs decided to keep the truth secret for as long as possible.
William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) were childhood friends. Kammerer was working as a university English professor when he met Lucien Carr (Dale DeHaan), who was only 14 at the time. The two became lovers. Lucien's mother attempted to separate them by moving around the country, but wherever they went Lucien contacted Kammerer, and they met at the new place. The film begins in 1943, when Lucien was 18, studying English Literature at Columbia University in New York. Lucien wasn't very good at his studies and was in danger of failing, but he had help. David Kammerer was working as a janitor in the university just to be close to Lucien, and he was writing his papers for him.
At first this situation went well, but then it became too much for Lucien. He began to have feelings for boys his own age, including Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe). Lucien was a user. He didn't break up with Kammerer until Allen promised to take over as the one who would write his university papers. Kammerer wasn't happy, and he continued to pursue Lucien. Eventually Lucien attacked Kammerer with a knife, then tied him up and threw him in the river while he was still alive.
Lucien's defence was that the killing was an honor slaying. The legal definition is as follows:
Honor Slaying: Relating to a lethal attack committed when the accused is defending himself against a known homosexual. If the accused is a heterosexual, he shall be pardoned. But if the accused is a homosexual, the charge of murder in the first degree shall stand.
This doesn't refer to killing someone in self-defence against a violent attack. The words "defending himself" refer to preventing sexual advances from a homosexual. What it means, effectively, is that a heterosexual is allowed to kill a homosexual who touches him in a sexual manner. If a homosexual is touched by another homosexual he isn't allowed to kill him.
The law was really biased against homosexuals in 1944, wasn't it? In actual fact, Kammerer didn't even make sexual advances on the night of his death. It was a premeditated murder by Lucien Carr. He merely invented the sexual assault story as a defence. There were no witnesses to the murder itself, but Kammerer was known to be homosexual. Lucien was homosexual, of course, but he denied this in court, and there were no witnesses to contradict him.
Lucien Carr had to go to prison for 18 months. For the rest of his life he pretended to be heterosexual and stuck to his story that David Kammerer was pursuing him against his will. Only his closest friends knew the truth, and they kept quiet.
|Dale DeHaan as Lucien Carr|
|Michael C. Hall as David Kammerer|
The film is also Allen Ginsberg's story. I can relate to him. He was a good, hard-working boy. When he went to university he met and admired wild, unruly boys, in particular Lucien Carr. He wanted to be like them. That was just like me when I went to university. At school I had always studied hard and only allowed myself a limited social life. When I went to university I saw the other students drinking and partying, so I wanted to be like them. I pretended to be like them, and I was accepted into their circles, but inside I still felt like an outsider. They accepted me more than I accepted them. Allen Ginsberg went a step further than me. He became one with the rebellion, and eventually he was expelled from university. In his case there was the additional issue that at university he realised for the first time that he was homosexual, so he associated with other students who had the same sexuality as himself.
|Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg|
|Ben Foster as William Burroughs|
The acting is superb throughout. Michael C. Hall is a lovesick fool who has given up everything to be with the boy he loves, even though their relationship was illegal. Dale DeHaan is a rebellious teenager confused by his own sexuality. Daniel Radcliffe is an innocent, not quite sure if he should side with the establishment or the rebels, but eventually picking the latter. Ben Foster is a mysterious character, wandering around quoting poetry, relying on drugs to make himself happy, outwardly friendly with Allen and Lucien but inwardly detached.