Kill Your Darlings (London Film Festival 2013)
The difficulty in translating the Beat Generation to screen is turning into a challenge to the film industry, with a battered copy of Naked Lunch flailing in front of a frustrated producer’s face. As last year’s On the Road predictably demonstrated, the drug-induced hazes of Beat literature tend to be lifeless when acted out.
So what makes Kill Your Darlings different?
Well, it’s decidedly more focused. Rather than bring literature to life, John Korkidas uses his directorial debut to explore the catalyst for the writers’ movement. At the centre is Allen Ginsberg (played by Daniel Radcliffe with extra curly hair), aged 17 – it’s 1944 and over a decade before he’d write the first draft of Howl. Like Hogwarts, much is made of the shyness in starting a new school, and Ginsberg quickly finds a new friend in Beat ringleader Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan). Their shared interest in rebellious literature leads to them befriending the likes of Kerouac and William Burroughs. It’s rather charming, if you ignore the playful suicide attempts and traces of self-hatred.
Carr is one of the unknown heroes of the Beat writers, mainly because he wasn’t one. His role was to engage and inspire; he smugly informs Ginsberg, “You’d be boring without me.” DeHaan clearly has fun in a role that’s both egotistical and insecure. Carr delivers passionate speeches about identity, while at the same struggling with his sexual identity. Tellingly, he’s surrounded by some of the generation’s greatest poets, but is unable to compose a verse.
To avoid creative impotence, Carr goads Ginsberg (or “Ginsy”, as he affectionately nicknames him) into breaking away from metre and rhyme; they spot Ogden Nash in a jazz club, and decide he’s the enemy. In a tremendous moment of foreshadowing, Carr retorts that the best revenge isn’t killing someone, but making sure they’re forgotten.
Radcliffe’s performance is similarly nuanced through Ginsberg’s back story and guessing, as a viewer, which incidents help to shape his future. The role demands maturity, yet rather smartly places Ginsberg’s small figure in classrooms to show he’s still just a young boy, unsure of what to expect from the world.
The story’s darker turns aren’t apparent until much later in Kill Your Darlings, by which point all the characters are established enough that earns core incident the dramatic weight it deserves. As someone who’s studied the Beats at university, written essays and exam papers on Kerouac and Ginsberg, I was unfamiliar with the plot. I believe this is the first film adaptation of said event (which I’m not revealing), and it reveals the allure of Lucien Carr – in many ways, a Dean Moriarty for Ginsberg. As the credits point out, Carr requested his name be removed from the dedication in Howl.
Unfortunately, not everyone is as richly shaped. Some enticing names are barely touched upon, namely David Cross as Allen’s father, and Elizabeth Olsen is wasted appearances as Edie Parker. The episodic screenplay also places a few comic set pieces at the expense of deeper understanding of fringe players. Sure, I won’t forget Jack Huston as Jack Kerouac, squeezing into a beer keg that’s rolled down a hill – but I’m not sure what else about him I’ll remember.
Even more egregious is the anachronistic soundtrack which opens the credits with The Libertines. It may be attempting to bring relevance or prove the Beat Generation’s spirit lives on, but that already takes place with the literature. In the few teasing moments, there’s awe as a few lines are drawn out from Ginsberg’s mouth, particularly in a midnight boat ride so inspiring, he can’t hold back the poetry. And that’s the magic of Kill Your Darlings.
Kill Your Darlings is part of the London Film Festival’s “First Feature Competition” strand. Screening information can be found here.
United States of America
104 mins approx