Directed by: John Krokidas.
Written by: Austin Bunn & John Krokidas.
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe (Allen Ginsberg), Dane DeHaan (Lucien Carr), Ben Foster (William Burroughs), Jack Huston (Jack Kerouac), Michael C. Hall (David Kammerer), Elizabeth Olsen (Edie Parker), Kyra Sedgwick (Marian Carr), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Naomi Ginsberg), David Cross (Louis Ginsberg), David Rasche (Dean), John Cullum (Professor Steeves).
The ongoing fascination with the Beat movement in American literature is understandable. The writers associated with the movement – from Allen Ginsberg to Jack Kerouac to William Burroughs – represented the rejection of the established rules of the previous generations. There is romance in their rebellion, which is why teenagers still read On the Road, and fall in love with the idea of hitting the open road. Kill Your Darlings is about the Beat movement before there was any actual work to go along with their ideas – when the writers were just young, confused (sexually and otherwise) kids who didn’t quite know what they wanted to do – but definitely knew what they didn’t want to do. Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs are all characters in the movie – but the character you will leave the theater remembering is a less famous person – Lucien Carr. It isn’t giving anything away to say that the movie concentrates on the murder of David Kammerer by Carr (it happens in the opening scene, before cycling back to tell what led to it). This murder showed the dark side of the movement – spurned its central figures to go to deeper and darker places.
The main character in the film is Ginsberg, played in an excellent performance by Daniel Radcliffe, leaving Harry Potter behind him. When the movie opens, he has just gotten into Columbia University, but isn’t sure if he should attend, because it would mean leaving his deeply mentally disturbed mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) behind. But he goes anyway, and quickly learns that the poetry he’ll learn in school has too many rules for him. His challenging of the Professor in front of the whole class draws the attention of Carr – and soon the two become inseparable. Ginsberg is drawn to Carr for his ideas, his intellect, and his sexuality that simply oozes out of him. If Ginsberg wasn’t sure he was gay before, he knows after meeting Carr – whose sexuality seems to be fluid. It’s through Carr that Ginsberg will meet Burroughs (Ben Foster), Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) and eventually Kerouac (Jack Huston). Kammerer used to be a Professor, but he has quit his job to follow Carr from school to school like a lost puppy dog. He is completely infatuated with Carr – like Ginsberg is – and immediately senses a threat to their relationship – which the movie hints at, but keeps ambiguous.
Kill Your Darlings is not exactly an original film. Like many films, what starts out as seemingly a non-stop party, and endless good times, gradually reveals itself to be something much darker. Yet, while the film won\t win points for originality, it is still an effective movie for many reasons. Debut director John Krokidas gets the period details right, and nails the feeling of how freeing it can be to be a young person rebelling against the established order. In Radcliffe, he found a fine actor to play Ginsberg at this moment in his life – immensely talented, but confused and unsure of himself. In many ways, he needs someone like Carr – both because he encourages him, and because eventually the cruelty in Carr will inspire heartbreak, which will fuel his work. As Carr, Dane DeHaan is even better – sexy, dangerous, charming, yet seemingly hell bent of self-destruction, and capable of cruelty, towards those around him. Michael C. Hall is also very good as Kammerer, a pathetic shell of a man who knows that his “Lulu” will eventually destroy him, but cannot help himself anyway.
The other performances aren’t quite as good. Perhaps because Foster is tired of everyone saying he’s goes too far over the top, his Burroughs is a curiously sedate character – one who drifts into the background too often. True, you shouldn’t play Burroughs as over the top – Viggo Mortenson’s performance of the man in On the Road last year nailed it. And I never bought Huston as Kerouac – he plays him almost as an immature frat boy. Talented actors like Elizabeth Olsen, David Cross, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Kyra Sedgwick are pretty much wasted in nothing, small roles.
But when Kill Your Darling concentrates on its central relationship between Ginsberg and Carr, it works very well. Yes, I would have preferred a more daring film – a film that broke as many rules as the Beat writers themselves – but that doesn’t mean this more conventional approach doesn’t result in a fine movie.