Kill Your Darlings
Proto-Beatnik biopic finds Ginsberg, Kerouac involved in murder most foul
Kill Your Darlings
Directed by John Krokidas
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Jack Huston
Young Hollywood is either genuinely obsessed with the Beat Generation writers, or the Beatniks have become easy shorthand for rebellious behavior. Last year Kristen Stewart shed her teenage Twilight image by appearing naked in an indie film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Now beloved Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe takes on the role of controversial, homosexual poet Allen Ginsberg in the Beat Generation drama Kill Your Darlings. If Miley Cyrus shows up on MTV next week reciting lines from “Howl,” we’ll know the movement is completely on trend.
Kill Your Darlings plays out like a coming-of-age tale wrapped in a dark murder mystery. It’s set in 1944 when Ginsberg (Radcliffe) was a freshman at Columbia University. Along with pals Jack Kerouac (an energetic Jack Huston from “Boardwalk Empire”) and William S. Burroughs (an appropriately odd Ben Foster from X-Men: The Last Stand), Ginsberg is still a decade or two away from igniting a literary firestorm. He’s also just beginning to explore his sexual yearnings, in the form of pouty lipped pretty boy Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan from Chronicle). Somehow, in the process of fighting evil wizards and flying around on broomsticks, Radcliffe has developed into a sensitive young actor. His character’s tortured attraction to Carr remains largely unspoken, but is clearly evident. Carr, however, is a love-’em and leave-’em sort of gigolo who delights in both seducing and thwarting the young Ginsberg. When an obsessive older man (Michael C. Hall) starts taking too much interest in him, Carr stabs the guy to death and dumps the body into the Hudson River. This rash act leaves Carr’s aspiring literary pals under a cloud of suspicion.
The cast is quite good across the board. (Extra kudos for the nutty casting of David Cross and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Ginsberg’s parents.) But it’s mostly Radcliffe’s show, and he does an exemplary job of crafting a young man who wants to set the world on fire, but isn’t quite sure of how to do that. He’s also completely insecure in his sexuality—attracted to Carr for his fiery rhetoric as much as for his rakish sexuality. The film occasionally veers toward melodrama, but Radcliffe remains a sympathetic protagonist throughout.
The script (based loosely on Ginsberg’s semi-autobiographical writings) throws sexuality, jealousy, ambition, intellect, morality, art, inspiration, revolution, homophobia and homicide into the mix. And if it’s a rather overstuffed portfolio of ideas, at least it’s more exciting than Walter Salles’ go-nowhere adaptation of On The Road. First-time director John Krokidas can’t always connect the dots, scene for scene, and he tries too hard sometimes to inject some poetic style into the proceedings. A slo-mo hallucinogenic trip in a Harlem jazz club and some climactic crosscutting between knives and penises are a bit too on-the-nose. Nonetheless, Krokidas finds inspiration in a few standout scenes. A sequence in which the soon-to-be-famous authors raid a library and shred the classics to bits has surprisingly solid impact. Less successful are the film’s classroom sequences in which Ginsberg and pals challenge the institutional authority of their stuffy old teachers. These scenes make the film look like a raunchy remake of Dead Poets Society.
At its best, however, Kill Your Darlings is an evocative look at the birth of the Beat Poetry movement. With its nicotine-stained cinematography, startling sexuality and firm belief in the power of muses both dark and light, the film calls up the ghosts of some literary greats. Well-versed Beatnik historians may not get a lot from this historical footnote. For twentysomethings trying to shock and impress conventional society by reading a dog-eared copy of Naked Lunch on the bus, however, Kill Your Darlings is essential viewing.