An untold story of murder that brought together a young Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William Burroughs (Ben Foster) at Columbia University in 1944, providing the spark that led to the birth of an entire generation – their Beat revolution.
Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) never killed anyone, but once upon a time he knew someone who did and this human tragedy broke his heart and opened his soul to all kinds of possibilities, cerebral and sensual, artistic and political. At least that’s the pitch for this ambitious low budget indie, the directorial debut of American John Krokidas.
its impact is diminished by the smallness of its vision
The killer Ginsberg once knew was Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), who was ultimately charged with manslaughter over the death of David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall). The press accounts at the time, urged by Carr’s defense, depicted this ugly scene as a innocent young straight man defending himself against the unwanted attentions of an older predatory homosexual. Carr served a little time and died a free man, a family guy who found a career in the mainstream of journalism at the UPI agency. Ginsberg later dedicated his seminal book of poetry 'Howl’ to Carr and Carr asked to have his name removed. The death of Kammerer was buried as an historical footnote, its details a murky wash of stern court records, and claim and counter-claim.
Krokidas' film tells this story and it’s an exercise in speculation and a meditation on art and process made under the sign of queer-film veteran Todd Haynes, which in the circumstances is a pretty flattering comparison (the latter’s frequent collaborator Christine Vachon produces here.) There’s the same love-hate-love of movie made melodramatic cliché’s, the same aggressive technique redolent with inventive camera work (fast motion, slow-mo, reverse motion) in-jokes, amusing puns, elaborate sound design and pitch perfect period detail. Like Haynes too, there’s a fondness for formal conceit. Here, it’s the idea that the film we are watching has leaped from the psyche of the movie's Ginsberg (the story we see here he delivers to his professor as a term paper). Full of sex, drugs, violence and lit musings, the piece is enough to get Ginsberg kicked out of school. But as the film suggests, it’s a sign of maturity, artistic and otherwise: 'Some things, once you’ve loved them, become yours forever," says Ginsberg in the voice-over that book ends the film. 'And if you try to let them go, they only circle back and return to you. They become part of who you are, or they destroy you."
Thus Kill Your Darlings can no way be confused as a crime procedural but a kind of film- group biography in mutant form, a some time celebration of the nascent Beat Generation, set mostly in the corridors of Columbia, where Ginsberg arrived as a freshman in 1944. Most of the action involves watching the cultural warriors of the future experiment to their hearts desire.
Ginsberg trainspotters are bound to have fun; in particular the scene here where the young poet under the influence of drugs, hallucinates in lucid fashion which in turn feeds his muse (perhaps a reference to Ginsberg’s assertion that he once heard the voice of William Blake speaking to him in his Harlem apartment).
Still there’s nothing outré about the film really; unless the idea of the man who played Harry Potter engaging in the pleasures of sex (both gay and straight) has some kind of inherent shock value.
A lot of it is silly. Carr who was instrumental in forging the Beat's New Vision manifesto ('art eludes conventional morality’) is first seen standing on a table in a library and quoting from Henry Miller, while an instantly smitten Ginsberg looks on eyes a-sparkle and ears pricked at the way one suspects Carr utters the word, 'cock’. Naughty vernacular aside, that’s corny movie shorthand. William Burroughs played by the very fine Ben Foster fares better; we meet him in an empty bathtub mid-party with a mask strapped to his face as he sucks on nitrous-oxide.
Art is their energy but for Krokidas and co. sexuality is the real test for these guys. And yes the film is unapologetically male-centred, even as it delights in depicting what utter bastards these art/social radicals can be to the women in their lives, embodied in the figure of the casually married Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston, excellent).
Indeed the screenplay by Krokidas and Austin Bunn seems to tease and probe the Beat legend. I think the attraction Krokidas and co. had to the sad Carr-Kammerer story wasn’t just in its relative obscurity but the chance it afforded them to explore sexual politics in a way that stretches beyond the historically curious. There have been a lot of movies of late about this period – Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl, Walter Salles On the Road – and their lack of traction in the pop culture zeitgeist has moved some critics to ask, not unreasonably, why would anyone give a toss about another one? Krokidas and co. find a rejoinder to that dismissal in turning Kill Your Darlings into a cautionary tale with a stern moral about the inherent dangers in closeting one’s desire. Indeed its melodramatic core is founded on Ginsberg’s blossoming sexuality; the film's climax comes when Carr asks him to betray his homosexuality by helping his defense, which in essence, is homophobic. Carr’s own sexual identity remains ambiguous (and within the moral economy of Kill Your Darlings that position is perilous.)
The movie's interest in this aspect of Ginsberg’s group is hard to argue with. And I think the film is perhaps better than this grumpy review suggests. At least it has ideas. Yet its impact is diminished by the smallness of its vision, the way each of the characters comfortably fit familiar patterns: DeHaan who has the pale, pouty, big-eyed, blond flop look of Gilbert Grape period Leonardo di Caprio is the toxic friend, Hall’s Kammerer is the tortured menace, and Radcliffe’s Ginsberg is"¦well, the perennial outsider looking in, the thoughtful nerd, searching for a lover, needing a friend. Krokidas signs off the film with archive photos from the period featuring Carr, Kerouac, Ginsberg and others. They look tough, mysterious. And dangerous. The movie makes them look like moppets.