The problem with movies about the Beat poets is that inevitably they are reduced to hagiography. With a group as aesthetically and theoretically “cool” as the Beats, over-stylization, clichés, and sentimentality are par for the course. Unsurprisingly, Kill Your Darlings, cannot avoid them. However, it smartly, and perhaps disorientingly chooses to select a footnote to focus on in the lives of the Beat poets: Lucien Carr’s (Dane DeHaan) killing of David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall).
Directed by newcomer John Krokidas, Kill Your Darlings centers on Alan Ginsberg (as played by Daniel Radcliffe) as he transitions from home-bodied teenager to lawless poet at Columbia University. Upon entering Columbia, Ginsberg meets Carr who he falls for almost immediately. Carr, in turn, opens up Ginsberg’s writing, sexuality, and drug use. It is Krokidas and co-writer Austin Bunn’s mild genius that opts to magnify a moment rather than a movement. While Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), William Burroughs (played masterfully by the dry and near unrecognizable Ben Foster), are all featured, more is told about them through this event and transitional time than could be through their actualized and commonly-celebrated identities.
Where there are, arguably, shortcomings, mainly in the derivative or heavy-handedness implicit to adaptations of the Beat era, Krokidas does his best to ameliorate with his expert direction and Reed Morano’s cinematography. If nothing else, the cynics will have to admit Kill Your Darlings looks good. Its fast editing, anachronistic music, and iconoclastic sensibilities give it a rock and roll ethos that portends the rise of The New Vision (what the Beats originally claimed to ascribe to).
One of the wonderful things about Kill Your Darlings is its parsing out and problematizing of the writing process itself. In including the audience in the Beats’ artistic exercises and drug-addled freeform, the myth around the poets and the proponents of The New Vision dissipates. Counter-intuitively, they become romanticized by their wrongness, their lack of genius, their humanity. In one such scene, the boys, (and yes, as is typical of the Beat era, there is a distinct lack of visible women, hence too the nebulous sexuality of the film) in order to get their creative juices flowing, rapidly list the things they hate. Among the answers are: “my father” and “Patterson, New Jersey,” where Ginsberg grew up. Their radicalism and their “New Vision” is birthed out of a fear of normalcy and structure.
In sum, it’s not quite there. Some of the film feels hollow and unsatisfying. People, at points, become characters. However, while that may be true, it is difficult to call Kill Your Darlings boring or without points of interest.
Kill Your Darlings opens today at the Ritz Five.