‘Kill Your Darlings’ Review

Kill-Your-rlings-Poster

The Beat Generation have enjoyed a cinematic surge of interest as of late, to varying degrees of success: the good, if forgettable Howl (2010),  Walter Salles’s disappointing On the Road (2012), and most recently, the inexplicably well-received Kill Your Darlings (2013). It’s no wonder the first two made it to the big screen; Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1956)– along with William Burrough’s Naked Lunch (1959)–are consistently hailed as the era’s defining works, and Kill Your Darlings brings all three writers together at the brink of these creative years. It’s actually one of the film’s biggest problems. As much as I’d love a film about the Beats inspiring, fighting, and loving each other, this perhaps was not the best vehicle to do it. Kill Your Darlings makes the understandable, but fateful mistake of exploring these social relationships  at the expense of an interesting story in its own right.

Dane Dehaan and Daniel Radcliffe in Kill Your Darlings

Dane Dehaan and Daniel Radcliffe in Kill Your Darlings

At the center of the film, and indeed the Beats themselves, was Lucien Carr, a charismatic, free-spirited young man, arguably responsible for the formation of the Generation in the first place. Ginsberg once said, “Lou was the glue,” and it’s true that the brightest of the Beats met through Carr. A scion of wealthy St. Louis high society, Carr was already well acquainted with Burroughs, himself from a prominent St. Louis clan, long before he made it to Columbia University. Once there, he met Edie Parker in an art class, and she introduced him to her boyfriend (soon-to-be husband) Jack Kerouac. Then late one momentous night, playing Brahms at high volume, Carr drew to his dorm room a bright young freshman: Allen Ginsberg. Thus, a generation of luminaries was formed. Perhaps Carr, too, would’ve reigned in public consciousness as recognizable a name as Ginsberg and Kerouac, had he not murdered David Kammerer deep in the summer of 1944.

It’s unfortunate then that writer-director John Krokidas and co-writer Austin Bunn place this story firmly in the hands of Ginsberg, who was the least involved and the last to know what was going on. As a consequence, the film loses a lot of its inherent drama, and what might’ve been a complex commentary on infatuation, obsession, and love–romantic and platonic–is stifled, swapped instead for a heavy-handed coming-of-age story. The film follows Ginsberg (played by Daniel Radcliffe) from his unstable home life with an emotionally absent father (David Cross) and mentally ill mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Columbia University, where he finally begins to come into his own. He is immediately struck and taken by Carr (Dane Dehaan), and after a reenactment of the Brahms incident, the two become fast friends, or nearly, given the tilted dynamic between them from the beginning. Carr ushers a grateful and eager Ginsberg into the 1940s New York literary scene  where he soon becomes acquainted with the brilliant but odd Burroughs (an effortless performance by Ben Foster) and the passionate Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston). Always lurking along the periphery is English professor-turned-janitor David Kammerer (Dexter‘s Michael C. Hall), a tolerated rather than welcome presence. Ginsberg begins to question the hold the possessive Kammerer has on Carr when he discovers that Lucien might be more complicit, and perhaps more devious than initially thought.

Burroughs (Ben Foster) standing while Kerouac (Jack Huston), Ginsberg (Radcliffe) and Carr (Dehaan) read

Burroughs (Ben Foster) standing while Kerouac (Jack Huston), Ginsberg (Radcliffe) and Carr (Dehaan) read

As young Ginsberg, Radcliffe’s performance is earnest, but just shy of convincing, perhaps not entirely his own fault. As a character, the actual man himself is captured rather dismally. There are moments of genius, like when he argues with his professor about meter and rhyme and his pining for Carr leading him to embrace his own sexuality, but largely the character feels inconsistent. Dehaan fares much better as the charming, manipulative Carr, as does Michael C. Hall in the role of the tortured Kammerer.  The others, all of them talented, are unfortunately wasted here, especially Elizabeth Olsen resigned to a decidedly shrewish Edie Parker. In fact, the saddest thing about Kill Your Darlings is all the wasted potential. The filmmakers took a story ripe with drama–obsession, jealousy, sex, murder–and by handing it over to Ginsberg (a master storyteller in his own right), stifle a lot of complexity. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say they were slightly derivative of On the Road, turning Carr into a sexually confused Neal Cassady, which is a shame because Lucien Carr was already plenty interesting. There’s no basis for the film’s claim that Carr strung Kammerer along and forced the man to write his college papers (something the character later transfers to Ginsberg). In fact, by all accounts Carr was really quite a brilliant student. Later he would become one of the most respected editors of his day, working until his death for United Press International, in the meantime editing and reviewing the early drafts of his friends Kerouac and Ginsberg. 

Then, there’s the problematic framing of the narrative, namely as an unrequited love story. While the extent of their relationship remains elusive–was it sexual, fanatical, obsessive, unrequited, mutual?–it should  be known that Kammerer first took interest in Carr when he was fourteen. When the boy’s mother discovered a stack of “desperate letters” from Kammerer to her son and decided to move, the 29-year-old professor uprooted, too, and proceeded to follow them around Northeast America, from Massachusetts to Maine to Chicago. A suicide attempt at the University of Chicago is, in the film, decided to be a result of Carr’s own sexual frustration and inability to come to grips with his sexuality.  Ginsberg argues that Carr had perhaps at one point loved Kammerer. On the other hand, Carr, who’d been abandoned by his biological father, may also have regarded Kammerer as a paternal figure of sorts, given his chillingly casual confession to Kerouac, who later recounted them in Vanity of Duluoz:  “Well,” Carr said, “I disposed of the old man last night.”  But understandably, one must be careful with that kind of narrative, for it plays to the worst of homophobic inclinations, and indeed, Carr himself owed the leniency of his sentence (he was sentenced to one-to-twenty years, but served only two) to the hysteria that gay men actively prey upon straight men.

Overall the film itself leaves a lot to be desired, largely because of uneven writing, leaving the story and its characters scattered. It’s better than On the Road, but that’s not saying much.

2 1/2 *