“Kill Your Darlings”
Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs and Carr
One of the most films with a GLBT theme of the past year has been “Kill Your Darlings” probably because it brings three great beat poets together. Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) is a student at Columbia University in 1944. There he meets Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) and his life changes immediately. Carr is “cool” and very handsome in a boyish way and the leads Ginsberg to the Bohemian world and introduces him to William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston). The four of then who do not care for the rules of conformity in either life or literature agree to break with tradition and develop something new that comes to be the Beat movement. Watching them is David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) who is passionately in love with Carr. When Kammerer’s body turns up dead, Kerouac, Burroughs and Carr are arrested on suspicion. It was the murder that brought them together.
Director John Krokidas (and Austin Bunn who co-wrote the script with him) see Carr as a transgressive friend of the poets as well as the catalyst to the fame and immortality of timid freshman Allen Ginsberg (who not only falls in love with Lucien, but also dives headlong into his “libertine circle” and their planned revolution in American letters. Carr introduces Ginsberg (or Ginzy) to Yeats and Rimbaud. He tells Ginsberg to write poetry and to create a vision statement for the “New Vision”. He also ha David Kammerer, a janitor write his academic papers. Kammerer is obsessed with Carr who throws him off as “a queer” and who died violently from Carr’s knife and then thrown into the Hudson River. What this murder does is frame Ginsberg’s unconsummated romance with Carr.
Director Krokidas shows his understanding of the nascent Beats’ aesthetic but he outs too much into their debates and their drink and drug sessions. The focus is on Ginsberg’s pining for Carr, and the way Carr humiliated Kammerer as well as the battles that were fought in the name of Romanticism and Joycean freedom. The dissent of heretical young people is seen as part of academia that was dominated by White Anglo Saxon Protestants. Krokidas seems to think that Carr was the muse that inspired Ginsberg to write his audacious poetry.
At Columbia, Ginsberg lost his innocence and attempted to become part of the world that does not want anything to do with him. Ginsberg soon finds that the rules and regulations of college life are stifling to the creative process. His professor doesn’t admire poetry that goes outside of strict rhyming schemes which in turn chafes Ginsberg’s idolization of the free verse of Walt Whitman. While Whitman is deemed perverse due to his writing style and sexual orientation, the lame lines of the national poet laureate Ogden Nash are heralded. Allen’s open criticism in class catches the attention of brash Lucien Carr who eyes him as a pet project to mold into someone more sophisticatedly adventurous. Carr is daring with abrasive personality that draws people to intensely simultaneously love and hate him.
We are made very aware of the angst of societal constraint with the sexual, needy vivaciousness of young artists about to break out. They are portrayed as heroes but nothing is held back from the explicit way in which they conducted themselves that often hurt those who loved them the most. Carr manages to jettison Ginsberg’s personal and professional life but soon abandons him like other projects that he becomes bored with. He is a callous egoist who manages to make the vices and failures of Kerouac and Burroughs look mild. The emotional consequences that Carr’s abusive actions and neglect have on Kammerer are devastating. They also inadvertently propel the actions and emotions of the writers around him that would make them legendary while leaving him to fade into obscurity. Michael C. Hall plays wounded masterfully. Never for a moment do you believe that he will let go of making Carr realize he is loved and special, despite the hate he pushes back against. Ben Foster’s Burroughs is severe, malnourished and proper. His rampant drug use is uncomfortably comedic and captivating. Not yet nearly engrossed in the amount of drugs that would lead him to write such novels as Naked Lunch, this is instead a writer on the verge of going over the edge. Brought up in privilege, he is burdened with the financial bankroll of his free lifestyle by his lineage. Foster’s screen time is limited and so the effectiveness in which he conveys the push and pull of his family fortune is incredible.
There is one sequence that involves several different sexual encounters that are with acts of violence that are disquieting. We see the act of penetration balanced with images of stabbing ands this feels acutely visceral, especially as it concerns the deflowering of Ginsberg.
Krokidas perfectly captures the elation that goes along with breaking down convention for the sake of unfettered creation, specifically here with the fruitful nascence of Greenwich Village progressivism and the beat generation. The usurpers are Columbia University students who frequent downtown jazz clubs and smoke-filled house parties, finding endless inspiration in the motley crowds of intermingling races, sexualities and ideologies. It is a time of change when there were no limits and when fantasies became realities.
The details are amazing and we are pulled into Carr and Ginsberg’s complicated dynamic, which is one of the most fully realized queer romances in recent cinema. Like so many historical relationships we see their relationship is inspiring, frustrating, bombastic and ultimately tragic. Carr’s struggle with his own sexuality became a roadblock, occasionally in his relationship with Ginsberg but mostly with Kammerer, the man who acted as his protector. As their relationship fell apart, Carr’s self-destructive tendencies started to affect everyone in his social circle.
Radcliffe dives into his role with no fear and he depicts Ginsberg on his journey to find his sexuality and his voice as a poet. This is the true story of crime and friendship and the spark to start a cultural movement.