Perhaps because On the Road (2013) was so lackluster and Howl (2010) was so insular and specialized, I was not exactly looking forward to another movie about the Beat Generation. That first-time director and co-writer John Krokidas was an unknown quantity added to the caution on my part. My surprise was great when Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings hooked me from the first moment and kept me hooked all the way through. It has everything the other films lacked — especially a strong, involving story and a collection of genuinely compelling performances. But more than this, it is ballsy head-on filmmaking that is unafraid of raw emotions and risk-taking. This may result in the occasional misstep, but even those are fascinating and worth seeing. Technically, Kill Your Darlings is a 2013 film, but it’s the first film to hit town in 2014 that I unreservedly love — warts and all.
It is also, I suspect, the sort of film that is bound to cheese hardcore Beat fanatics, who will argue its accuracy and debate its characterizations of the key players. That’s fine. The film fits the basics of the story it tells, but it tells that story through the filter of the young Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe, who leaves Harry Potter far behind). Ginsberg is portrayed as the filmmaker imagines him — and as he’s pieced him together from Ginsberg’s own writings. That’s fair, and it’s a valid approach — assuming you can grasp the fact that this is not meant to be a textbook on these people. In its way, Kill Your Darlings offers a portrait of the young Ginsberg and it suggests (at least part of) the story of how the Beats became the Beats. It isn’t always a particularly flattering suggestion.
At its simplest, the film is about how Ginsberg comes to Columbia University as a young man, unsure of himself in most ways, and falls into the company of Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan). Carr is outrageously self-assured, bold, flattering, flirtatous and charismatic. Ginsberg, who is still figuring out his sexuality, is immediately smitten. But it never becomes a relationship in the manner than Ginsberg wants. There’s always somebody else — either a fresh person to seduce (if not literally, then effectively) into Carr’s circle, or a semi-cast-off conquest. It is hinted that William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster) is one such past conquest, but the primary one is David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall). Kammerer is hopelessly in love with Carr, but Carr just uses him to write his papers, while he toys with Ginsberg and sets his sights on newer passions like Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston). The emotions at play here are never less than convoluted — and we know from the pre-credit sequence that it will end badly.
From what we see of Carr’s seduction of Ginsberg, it’s more a power game than anything — one that promises more than it delivers. In the end, Ginsberg only gets the suggestion of romance and one kiss, and that kiss clearly means different things to each of them. Carr is more interested in collecting these people, and, in so doing, creating what will become the Beat movement that will never actually include him. Apart from his clearly sociopathic tendencies, Carr’s biggest game is finding a group who can produce the works he is incapable of, which is what he finds in Ginsberg, Burroughs and Kerouac. And where is Kammerer in all this? Shut out and brushed aside. While nothing is made of this, Kammerer is also the only person involved who isn’t from a somewhat privileged background.
The story is strong and the emotions are raw. The filmmaking never lets up, keeping it all moving at a solid pace, while we watch an inevitable tragedy unfold. It’s a love story. It’s a story about the origin of the Beats. And it’s powerful drama. Radcliffe makes a perfect young Ginsberg — moving from innocence to experience to disillusionment. (Whether Harry Potter fans are quite ready to see him kissing Dane DeHaan, furiously masturbating on speed and losing his virginity to a sailor he picks up in a bar — a sailor who reminds him of DeHaan — is another matter.) DeHaan matches him every step of the way, and there is not a false performance in the cast. This is definitely a film to see. Rated R for for sexual content, language, drug use and brief violence.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas.