By Patrick King.
In 2008, first-time director John Krokidas convinced Daniel Radcliffe to play Allen Ginsberg. The movie was called Kill Your Darlings, and it centred around the birth of the literary movement known as the Beat Generation. Unfortunately for both parties, Radcliffe had to finish the final two Harry Potter movies first. And so the movie was recast, but the new cast eventually fell through because of financing issues, and Radcliffe re-joined the project. Is the movie better for it? Probably. Radcliffe certainly looks enough like Ginsberg and his American accent is fine, too, but what he really captures is the vulnerability of a young introverted gay man as he makes his way through his first year of college during a period of great repression. Radcliffe looks like he could break at any moment. His psyche is always on edge. This is what works about the performance. It might not be great, but at least it’s believable.
When Kill Your Darlings was finally released in 2013, critics who knew even a little about the history of the Beat Generation were quick to point out the film’s historical inaccuracies. True, the film is a mess in this regard, but that’s okay, because the best biopics are generally muddled in the same way. They have to be, in order to squeeze so much information into a two hour film. A super-compressed timeline means that the biopic is ultimately an impressionistic genre.
Though Kill Your Darlings is ostensibly about Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, a disturbed young man that Ginsberg met at Columbia University in the early 40’s, is the most interesting character. Certainly, he’s the one all the other characters orbit around, which is why he was able to bring together the key players of the Beat Generation while never writing anything more than privately circulated letters. Ginsberg first met Lucien when he heard Brahms music coming from Carr’s dorm room a floor below Ginsberg’s in the Union Theological Seminary during Christmas break, when each of them thought they were the only ones who decided not to go home to their families. As Ginsberg enters Carr’s room, Krokidas shows Lucien bathed in an angelic orange light from the window. And indeed, this must have been something of the vision that the romantic Ginsberg must have had himself as he looked at Carr.
And he wasn’t the only one who saw the charismatic young man that way. Some people have a kind of magnetic personality that can’t be resisted, and Carr was certainly one of those people. Two men about a decade older than Carr, William Burroughs and David Kammerer, had followed Lucien to New York City when he transferred to Columbia University in the fall of 1943. Burroughs came for the adventure, but Kammerer, who had once had a very inappropriate relationship with the young man, was in love with Carr and took a menial job as a janitor just to be close to him. In fact, Kammerer had been in love with Carr since Lucien was twelve years old, having been his Boy Scout leader back in St. Louis. That the movie only hints at the emotional and sexual abuse Carr suffered at the hands of Kammerer is perhaps its biggest sin, if we are to value historical truth at all.
The movie is about first experiences and the script never lets you forget that. Instead of letting the story unfold naturally, symbolic significance is attached to everything. This can get rather irritating because the symbolism is so obvious and back-patting. You want to tell Krokidas and co-writer Austin Bunn to just get on with the thing. Alas, everything has to have some huge symbolic significance to it. But, yes, the movie is about firsts, especially Ginsberg’s firsts. He arrives in New York City an innocent eighteen year old kid and by the end of the movie he’s experienced sex, drugs, passion and love. During the first party Carr takes Ginsberg to, he notices how overwhelmed and excited Ginsberg is and says, “Allen in Wonderland,” and that pretty much sums the thing up. Everything is a first, everything is new.And as Ginsberg argues with a professor that rhyme and meter are outdated and easy, the professor remarks that Ginsberg’s father actually practices rhyming poetry. We realize then that the movie is going to be about destruction. Even if we’re not at all familiar with the Beat Generation, we know from the beginning of the film that Carr will eventually murder Kammerer, so we have one kind of destruction, the most literal kind, but we also have the idea of destroying one’s father in order to move past him, to grow, to finally stop lionizing him and see him as human, complete with possibly damning flaws. So, yes, more heavy-handed symbolism here. Doesn’t get much more Freudian than killing the father, so to speak. And this heavy-handedness is really a problem for the movie.
At one point, Kammerer says about Ginsberg, “Under the right circumstances, even he might change the world,” basically winking to the audience, ‘cause, you know, later Ginsberg will become the most famous poet in the world. Same thing after Jack Kerouac is introduced and he’s sitting in a cafe with Burroughs and Carr. Kerouac, who briefly played football for Columbia, has his picture on the wall, along with other sports figures from the school. Carr remarks smugly that he never wants to end up on the wall, seeing it as a sign of being average, mundane, normal. Of course, Carr does end up on the wall, in the form of a newspaper clipping about the murder of Kammerer.
The filmmakers are so obsessed with the “firsts” theme that the second act climaxes with a montage of them. All these characters are having profound first experiences while Carr is killing Kammerer. Of course it didn’t happen like this, but, whatever, impressionism and all that. Anyway, the “firsts” montage is weird and jarring. Burroughs takes his first shot of morphine, something that would haunt him for the rest of his life. Ginsberg has sex with a man for the first time, and Kerouac learns about his best friend’s death in World War II, the first of many deaths that would have an impact on the rest of his very melancholy life. Krokidas moves between these scenes and the murder and the whole thing comes off as forced and a little distasteful.
A notable subplot is the treatment of women in the Beat movement and during the period in general, which was pretty horrendous. Poor Naomi, Ginsberg’s schizophrenic mother, is abandoned to an institution by Ginsberg’s father. And of course there’s the case of Edie Parker, Kerouac’s girlfriend, a very bright person in her own right who would finally write her memoirs about the period in 2007. Her personality is completely subsumed to Kerouac’s and she’s expected to cook his meals and support him and listen to him while her own needs are wholly unimportant. Women, even the most intelligent and artistic, were given short shrift during this time.
It was kind of weird seeing David Cross as Louis Ginsberg, but it was a role the comedian took seriously and his is actually one of the better performances in the film. Ben Foster channels Burroughs almost perfectly, nailing the voice, the stiff walk, the elitist tone. Michael C. Hall maybe channels Dexter, his most famous character, a little too much as David Kammerer. Dane DeHaan is just fine as Carr and is able to bring out the vulnerability underneath the extrovert’s facade. Jack Houston is pretty not bad as Kerouac. Definitely more athletic looking than Sam Riley, who played Kerouac in 2102’s On the Road. He also delivers a very convincing New England accent.
Frankly, Radcliffe carries the thing. Ultimately, the movie is about a fragile and sensitive young man discovering who he is going to be for the rest of his life, as an artist and a man. Had the writing been better, this could have been the dramatic role that really put Radcliffe on the map.
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