Beats, Rhymes, and Life

Amy Taubin on Kill Your Darlings

John Krokidas, Kill Your Darlings, 2013, 35 mm, color, sound, 104 minutes. Lucien Carr and Allen Ginsberg (Dane DeHaan and Daniel Radcliffe).

THE BEST THING about the enthralling, super-smart Kill Your Darlings is director John Krokidas’s ability to capture the excitement of young men’s minds on fire, a delirium fueled, in this case, by literary ambition, hormones, bennies and weed, freedom from parental restraints, and the perversion of the closet. Set at Columbia University in 1943–44, Kill Your Darlings is the first film about the origins of the Beat movement that gets many things right.

The story, largely told through the romantic imagination of the young Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), is styled as something of a 1940s film noir sieved through a 1960s Claude Chabrol New Wave murder mystery, with occasional hits of contemporary pop (TV on the Radio) mixed with bebop, blues, and the Andrews Sisters. This is Krokidas’s first feature, and it’s astonishing that he, with the aid of cowriter Austin Bunn and cinematographer Reed Morano, pulls off a seamless fusion of periods while smoothly uniting his own POV with that of his protagonist, all without ever suggesting anything as banal as universality. Killer Films, which nursed Kill Your Darlings through its long development, also deserves credit for supporting Krokidas with its own expertise in movies based on real-life incidents involving queerness and murder, Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Tom Kalin’s Swoon (1992) being notable examples.

Leaving his troubled, working-class home in New Jersey, seventeen-year-old Ginsberg arrives at Columbia and promptly falls into some heady company. Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), a poor little rich boy who Ginsberg first encounters defying the sanctity of the rare (or, more excitingly, banned) books library by leaping onto a table and declaiming passages of Henry Miller, takes scruffy Allen under his gilded but, as it turns out, all too fragile wing. “Lu” introduces Allen to Village jazz clubs and to the salon of his much older lover, David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), who trashed his academic career to follow Lu to New York. Kammerer writes Lu’s papers in exchange for sex, but their symbiotic relationship is deeper and more twisted. Through Lu, Allen also meets William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), and the foursome undertakes, in somewhat desultory fashion, upgrading the poetics of Yeats’s “Vision” to “the New Vision.”

Allen falls into unrequited love with Lu, who exudes the glamour and charisma of a badly wounded narcissist. The plot hinges on the Carr/Kammerer affair as observed and eventually imaginatively reconstructed by Ginsberg, who is forced to make a moral choice after Carr murders Kammerer and asks Ginsberg to ghostwrite his statement to the judge, in which he wants to claim that he was acting in self-defense as a heterosexual warding off Kammerer’s unwanted homosexual advances. The grisly murder, which climaxes the movie’s second act, is depicted as part of a montage which also includes Burroughs shooting up alone, Kerouac going nuts after learning that a buddy has been killed in the war, and Ginsberg finally losing his virginity in a one-night stand. That none of this seems overwrought is again a testament to Krokidas’s tonal control, and also to the first-rate performances of all the actors.

The burden of the film rests on Radcliffe, and although many will buy tickets in order to see Harry Potter butt-fucked, no one should look lightly on the subtlety and solidity of the now twenty-four-year-old actor’s performance. Radcliffe is more comely than Ginsberg ever was, but more important, he is thoroughly convincing as a budding poet who will become an enduring leader of the counterculture throughout the second half of the twentieth century. DeHaan rightfully claims unwavering attention whenever he’s on screen—not by sheer panache and beauty, but because of the desperation beneath his cool surface. Still, it’s Foster who gives the most revelatory performance. Not only does he have Burroughs’s voice, with its strangled inflections and percussive rhythms, down cold, but he also has a moment in which he reveals, through almost invisible body language, an aspect of Burroughs that certainly this writer never before considered. It occurs in a scene where Burroughs’s extremely proper and very annoyed father comes to take his junky son home. Beneath the insectlike protective carapace of “Willy’s” barely adult body, we sense an uncontrollable cringing and a barely choked-back rage. Without being simplistic, we might now add this humiliation of the son by the father—which Foster and Krokidas pinpointed—to the psychic cauldron from which the sardonic, unrelenting fury of Burroughs’s prose will emerge.

Kill Your Darlings is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.