I think the Beats are appealing subjects for movies because, in addition to the sex and drugs, there is is the irresistable fact that the three giants of the movement, the holy trinity of Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg, really did know each other before they were famous. How many idealistic college students have spent late nights imagining they would revolutionize literature? These guys actually did it.
Kill Your Darlings focuses mostly on Allen Ginsberg, as played by Daniel Radcliffe, and his friendship with Lucien Carr, an ancillary figure who was sort of to Ginsberg what Neal Cassady was to Jack Kerouac. Carr never wrote anything, but turned Ginsberg on to Rimbaud and a dissolute lifestyle. He also committed a murder that was a key moment in the Beat beginnings.
The film was directed and co-written by John Krokidas, making an assured debut. It is marvelous in capturing New York during the war years. Ginsberg, a somewhat sheltered boy who grew up in Paterson, New Jersey, has his eyes opened when he attends Columbia. Carr is a fellow student, and introduces him to the burgeoning counterculture, as cleverly represented by use of a subway map. They go to the “dangerous” areas–Christopher Street, where Ginsberg’s roommate warns him the “fairies” are, and Harlem, where he discovers jazz and benzedrine.
Ginsberg also meets William S. Burroughs, whom he first sees in a bathtub, sucking on a canister of nitrous oxide. Burroughs is a friend of David Kammerer, a scholar who has come to New York to be near Carr, whom he has a sexual obsession. Carr, who is straight, tolerates this because Kammerer writes his college papers for him. Ginsberg, who is a closeted gay, also develops a crush on Carr, and it’s easy to see why. In addition to his wild lifestyle, as played by Dane DeHaan he looks like a young Leonardo DiCaprio.
Later Ginsberg will meet Jack Kerouac, a former football star and merchant marine. Played by Jack Huston, he is a baby-faced reprobate, married to a woman (Elizabeth Olsen) but completely irresponsible. Together, spurred on by Carr’s passion for Yeats, they will endeavor to create a “New Vision” of literature.
This film is very affectionate toward its characters, especially Ginsberg. He is the son of a poet (David Cross, in a bit of canny casting, considering he played the younger Ginsberg in I’m Not There), and a mentally ill mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh). He challenges the establishment, citing Walt Whitman as he argues with a professor about rhyme and meter in poetry. And he’s game to the stunts played by the more dangerous Burroughs, Carr, and Kerouac, such as breaking into the Columbia library to replace the items in a case with more deviant work, like that of Henry Miller.
For those not interested in the Beats, or in the passion for literature itself, this film might not be of interest. It also portrays a big part of gay history, in that the murder case points out an odious law. It’s a bit too slavish to the notion of worship of the Beats to transcend it to be better than just a boutique film.
Radcliffe, who is admiringly doing his best to divorce himself from the legacy of Harry Potter, is quite good, as is the whole cast. I’ve never seen Dexter, so I was trying to figure out who played Kammerer, who almost steals the show as the erudite man undone by his sexual obsession, and then had an “ah hah” moment when I saw the closing credits.
The title refers to a maxim in writing that basically means discard those elements of your writing that you are too attached to. It’s a good title, as here it shows how this can also apply to life in general.
My grade for Kill Your Darlings: B.