How do you express the writing process? There are a few ways. There’s typing furiously (Misery (1990)), there’s ironic representation with a cut to a frustrated writer (How to Kill Your Neighbor’s Dog (2000)), or there’s integration of the final product into the narrative (Shakespeare in Love (1998)). Kill Your Darlings (2013), about the Beatniks Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouak, William Burroughs, and the one that got away, Lucien Carr, uses furious typing as its weapon of choice while occasionally resorting to mere reading. But let’s face it, this is a story about well-known (if not widely read) personalities, so the reason for their fame is secondary to that easily accessible fountain of drama: human tragedy.
A young man releases a bleeding victim into the river. It’s 1944 and the war is on the radio. Young Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) calms his mother and gets his acceptance letter in the mail. Columbia. Ginsberg has the spirit that presses against form his father used for ease. Brahms. Ginsberg meets Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan). Begins to drink. He is introduced to William Burroughs (Ben Foster). Drugs. They begin to push their minds into the idle atmosphere, proclaiming a New Vision. Homoeroticism. Unhealthy obsession in the form of David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall). He looks familiar. There’s Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston). He’s living in sin with Edie Parker (Elizabeth Olsen). Hijinx. Jealousy Drugs. Writing Alcohol. Jealousy. This can’t end well.
I don’t have it in me to parody Ginsberg. I want to. I want to take those superfluous, random thoughts and adjectives and stab its pretentious heart. But I can’t. I don’t understand it. I can’t separate it from my memory of the would-be intellects from college who filled their mouths with loosely strung aphorisms. These young fellows, these Beatniks as expressed in Kill Your Darlings, match my impression of their fully-grown selves. I blame writers Austin Bunn and John Krokidas (who also directs) for failing to defend them adequately. This failure is, as alluded to before, reflected in their mode of literary expression. I sympathize, I really do. “‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by insanity, hunger’…no wait…’madness, starving hysterical’…get it together Ginsberg, get it together!” But the difficulties the characters have with their writing is portrayed as an existential crisis requiring amphetamines to overcome.
The writing process constitutes about twenty percent of the film. Another twenty percent covers what we might style “boarding school antics”. Pranks, parties, long walks, and drug experimentation. The detritus of life, you might say. But most of the film is about the Ginsberg,-Carr-Kammerer love triangle and its effects. Whatever hopes I might have had for the Beatnik origin docu-drama were happily destroyed and replaced with sexual tension and romantic jockeying. Anyone with a Daniel Radcliffe gay fantasy will be well-pleased with the results. The fearlessness of Radcliffe’s performance in playing the role as emotionally vulnerable as he did was very impressive. He was absolutely stellar from first to last. Whether it is like Ginsberg, I could not say.
However, liberties taken in the story and the epilogue (discovered subsequently) should be sidelined and Kill Your Darlings approached as a work of fiction. After all, since the work is glossed over and everyone involved is dead, who cares? This will stand as a document of historical reference as much as Finding Neverland (2004) does. This goes doubly, triply so when it comes to Carr who is played by DeHaan as a closeted Sebastian Flyte. DeHaan’s career has absolutely taken off and Kill Your Darlings will only spur his ascent. As much as Radcliffe is broken, DeHaan is ambiguous and manipulative. These two make the movie. (And it doesn’t hurt having Ben Foster playing the droll supporting Beat while Jack Huston walks around looking pretty.)
The direction, as far as this is a film about iconoclasts antagonistic to form and meter, is rather conventional. One might have expected perspective shifts or expressionist filmmaking, but this did not occur. It’s greatest divergence from purest period drama was the occasional use of present-day musical tracks. While well-suited for the mood of the scenes, there was a better source to hand. This is a fair criticism because as the credits rolled, Krokidas showed that the more apt music was on his mind: punk rock. Perhaps this magpie assortment of musical styles is itself a nod towards the Beatniks’ own approach to their writings. Then if this is the case, a truer musical choice would be to record an adolescent beating at a grand piano with a kazoo.
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