Kill Your Darlings (John Krokidas, 2013)
We’ve seen a number of films about the 1950s “Beat Generation” recently, among them Howl (about the 1957 obscenity trial surrounding the publication of poet Allen Ginsberg’s collection of poems of the same name) and On the Road (about the novelist Jack Kerouac’s cross-country travels that inspired his novel of the same name). Howl, co-directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet), which featured James Franco as Ginsberg, was a fascinating mix of documentary (the spoken dialogue came directly from the historical record) and narrative (all sequences were dramatized and performed by actors) elements, effectively rendered, that nevertheless didn’t quite hold together, primarily because of the ill-considered animated sequences by Erik Drooker (an artist whose work, such as Blood Song, I normally admire). On The Road, by Brazilian director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries), though beautifully photographed, was unevenly scripted and acted, and managed to make banal the radical vitality (i.e., the very reason we remember them today) of Kerouac, Ginsberg and their friends.
Now comes Kill Your Darlings, the first feature by director/co-writer John Krokidas with whom – full disclosure – I attended NYU’s Grad Film MFA program (we worked on each other’s short films, he on All About George, for me, and I on Shame No More and Slo-Mo, for him). This new film focuses on a seminal event in the life of young Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe, of Harry Potter fame), with Kerouac (Jack Huston, grandson of John) in tow, long before either of them had realized their potential as writers. Indeed, we find ourselves at Columbia University in 1943, where Ginsberg, a freshman, meets Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan, of Chronicle and “In Treatment“), a charismatic and troubled older student whose ideas of self-actualization and intellectual liberation will end up inspiring the work of the future “Beats.” None of them know, at this point, what that future holds, however, and part of the joy of this fresh look at well-known figures is watching the actors brilliantly portray these men as they struggle to define themselves. Their proposed literary revolution has the naïve innocence of foolish youth about it, and when that innocence is lost, late in the film, the sudden maturity of adulthood that is thrust upon them is powerfully felt.
There is a murder at the center of the film, as the title implies (though that title is also a reference to a well-worn bit of writerly advice). In August, 1944, Lucien Carr killed an older man, David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall of “Dexter“), who had been his former scoutmaster, and perhaps lover, a crime for which he later served 18 months in prison. The movie opens with images from that killing, as Kammerer’s body floats in water, swirling in blood and dim light. We then flash forward to a prison cell, where Carr and Ginsberg – or “Ginzie,” as Carr calls him – argue over an account of the murder penned by Ginsberg that is damning to Carr. The violence of brute force is replaced by the violence of thought, and the link between them is clear. This is 1944, after all, and World War II is in full swing. Words have meaning and power.
We then flash back to Ginsberg’s arrival at Columbia and his introduction to Carr’s world of freethinking and indeterminate sexuality, down where the “fairies” live (as Ginsberg’s jock roommate calls Greenwich Village). This is primarily Ginsberg’s tale, and Krokidas and his co-writer Austin Bunn show us the liberating effect of 1940s New York Bohemian culture on the budding poet. In addition to new ideas, Ginsberg and pals absorb enormous quantities of drugs, thanks, largely, to William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster, The Messenger), a noted amateur pharmacologist (as well as future “Beat,” himself). Soon, they’re advocating a “New Vision” (inspired by William Butler Yeats’s A Vision), and breaking rules right and left. It’s the typical kind of college rebellion, and is all fun and games, until someone – Kammerer – actually gets hurt. In many ways, as Krokidas and Bunn make clear, it was this very tragedy that set the stage for a more sober reflection on life and literature that led to the later – and greater – accomplishments of these men. Otherwise, they may have remained satisfied with impish pranks, such as the (very funny) one they stage in the Columbia library (entirely invented by the filmmakers, but true to the spirit of the “New Vision”).
It is an assured debut. Krokidas directs his actors and cinematographer (Reed Morano, shooting on 35mm film) to great creative heights. Radcliffe is perfect as Ginsberg, and passionately conveys his yearning for new experiences. Like Kammerer, Ginsberg was infatuated with Carr, and Radcliffe shows us his sexual longing, and subsequent hurt when his advances are rebuffed, with moving pathos. It’s wonderful to see Radcliffe so flawlessly announce his own liberation – from Harry Potter – in this way. Kudos, as well, to Radcliffe for being willing to jump into Ginsberg’s skin so completely that he is willing to jump into bed for the required gay sex scenes (which shouldn’t be noted, except that it always is). The rest of the cast is also quite fine. I especially liked Ben Foster, whose Burroughs is both funny and frightening, and Michael C. Hall, whose Kammerer is simultaneously despicable and sympathetic.
It’s a great movie, and I highly recommend it. As the film ends, we know two things: that an acclaimed future awaits a new generation of writers, and that a glorious future awaits a new director.