John Krokidas’s worthy addition to the Beat canon.
John Krokidas’s debut Kill Your Darlings focuses on the roots of the poet Allen Ginsberg and other founding fathers of the notorious Beat Generation. Though the film loosely revolves around a mysterious murder, the bloody incident serves as a pre-text for the exploration of obsessive relationships that result not only in creation of the revolutionary literary works but also in disturbing actions.
It is 1944 and World War II is raging across the Old World. But across the Atlantic a different kind of uprising is taking shape. Young and dreamy Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) arrives on campus of the prestigious Columbia University in New York where he meets Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), an enigmatic rebel who dreams of carving his name in the annals of history. He also introduces Ginsberg to other literary hopefuls Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William Boroughs (Ben Foster). Together they decide to challenge the established literary norms, forms of expression, and institutions through new works and mischief. Although creating and publishing the former is a bit of an issue for them, the group manages to pull off some outrageous pranks. On this nonconformist journey Ginsberg also discovers his sexuality and the torments of love and jealousy. But the self-destructive cocktail of drugs, booze, and rivalry as well as Carr’s troubled past in the form of his obsessed ex-lover David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) lead to a violent tragedy.
The film boasts a great cast that makes this familiar albeit less known period of the lives of the Beats fascinating to watch. Daniel Radcliffe successfully portrays the ambitiousness and simultaneous awkwardness of a young man who is yet to forge his creative and sexual identity. It seems that like young Ginsberg in the film, Radcliffe is eager to shed the skin of his old image and find his own voice. Some moments, like the gay love making scene, really highlighted how far he is prepared to stretch himself to show his creative range and ability to take risk. Though big glasses and demeanour do remind of Harry Potter, Radcliffe’s fine performance and a believable American accent outshine the trace of the famous wizard. Nevertheless, it is DeHaan’s Lucien who steals the show. His portrayal of the charismatic but troubled young radical who can’t quite live up to his own ideals is outstanding and even a bit haunting. DeHaan and Radcliffe share a vibrant chemistry that adds up to the film’s intensity.
Kill Your Darlings effectively recreates the smoke-filled and somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere of the times with beautiful visuals and an upbeat score that combines jazzy and contemporary tunes. But despite the buoyant rhythms of jazz that drive the action, the story itself sometimes loses its focus. Sometimes it briefly muses on the terrors of war represented by Jack Kerouac’s brother’s recordings of his experience as a soldier, then shifts to Kerouac’s romantic issues with his girlfriend (Elizabeth Olsen) and then lingers too much on the party scenes. Some of these undeveloped storylines such as Kerouac’s love life could either be explored in more detail to add a more subtle context to the Beat’s early days or eliminated completely in favour of an undivided focus on poetry, rebellion and intense relationships among the main characters. However, despite the wandering about of the narrative, Kill Your Darlings remains quite captivating and intense.
The Beat Generation seems to be experiencing a cinematic revival with adaptations of Ginsberg’s Howl and Kerouac’s On the Road that reflect the romantic attitude towards the ideas that this group propagated. However, Kill Your Darlings does not embrace the Beat philosophy without questioning. It shows the dark side of the historic figures that are often overly romanticised for their anti-establishment attitude and is also somewhat critical of the value of that cultural movement. The characters are not portrayed as invincible heroes. Instead, the younger selves of these canonical writers are troubled and a bit shallow. Even though they strongly believe in renunciation of old conventions, they are not yet able to offer anything worthwhile that could replace the supposedly outdated forms of expression.
Overall, Kill Your Darlings is a worthy addition to the Beat canon on account of its great performances, stylish depiction of the times, and a glimpse into the less known past of the iconic figures of the American literature. Though previous knowledge of the Beat Generation works could be helpful to better understand what these early rebellious endeavours resulted in, it is, nonetheless, not required to appreciate this coming of age story spiced up with obsession, ambition, lust, and love.
Dir. John Krokidas,
USA, 2013; 104 minutes
Featuring: Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Michael C. Hall, Jack Huston, Ben Foster, David Cross, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Elizabeth Olsen.