Kill Your Darlings: the violent beginnings of the Beat Generation

Kill Your Darlings: the violent beginnings of the Beat Generation

“Who were expelled from the academy for crazy

and publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull

…who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear,

burning their money in wastebaskets

and listening to the Terror through the wall”

-Allen Ginsberg, Howl

Kill Your Darlings (2013) is the feature length debut of director John Krokidas and stars Daniel Radcliffe, Dane Henaan, Ben Foster, Michael C. Hall, and Jack Huston among many others. Telling the story of an infamous murder that deeply affected three soon-to-be novelists, Kill Your Darlings is a sometimes anachronous period piece that splits its focus between Radcliffe’s Allen Ginsberg learning how to be a writer and the tumultuous affair between Lucien Carr (Henaan) and David Kammerer (Hall). Along with Ginsberg, are Jack Kerouac (played by Huston) and William S. Burroughs (played by Foster). Kill Your Darlings deals with the relationship of trauma and artistic development of Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Kerouac.

We are introduced to Ginsberg as he plans to leave his damaged home where his mother is suffering from a debilitating psychological problems and his poet father is secretly seeing another woman. Ginsberg meets Carr during the Columbia school orientation, becoming immediately enraptured in Carr’s flamboyant pseudo-intellectual antics in the library, and the two young men strike up a friendship. Carr takes Ginsberg to an artsy party where he meets Burroughs, partaking in nitrous oxide in the bathtub and eventually the host of the party, a writer-turned janitor, Kammerer. There is something amiss between Kammerer and Carr. Ginsberg, whose character functions as the audiences’ perspective in the first act, is left in the dark about their complicated relationship.

Ginsberg is treated by Carr like the new flavor of the week, a naive soul that Carr can manipulate and influence to create something new because, as we soon find out, he has no talent of his own. Soon we meet Kerouac who becomes Carr’s new obsession after becoming bored with Ginsberg, creating a bit of conflict which is then quickly resolved. The four young men chum around, getting into trouble with the college, going to jazz clubs, philosophizing about writing and art, until finally the film reaches its fatal conclusion.

Kill Your Darlings does a few things well. The way Krokidas is able to transport the spectator into New York City in the forties is marvelous and the montages of Ginsberg losing himself in bebop jazz were much appreciated. The intellectual ravings between Carr, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Kerouac are entertaining and ring true as well. The depiction of the “New Vision” (inspired by Arthur Rimbaud), the furious and drug-fueled early attempt at cut-up techniques, and Ginsberg’s failed romance with Carr are the high points of the drama in this film.The performances, especially Radcliffe’s, are accomplished for the most part and the directing is assured.

However, the film has some problems that diminish the impact of its narrative. The overall pace of the film is too fast, propelling from scene to scene like a thriller which ultimately robs the film of emotional resonance and contemplation of these significant moments in the characters’ lives. Certain pivotal scenes require the pace to slow down, breath a little, and let the film settle on an experience and emotion so that the audience can do so at the same time.

Furthermore, Kill Your Darlings takes some curious liberties with the biography of Ginsberg during this period, most significantly excluding Neal Cassady from the mix and bolstering Burroughs’ presence. Ginsberg had a long-standing infatuation with him that was briefly explored in the recent film on Ginsberg, Howl (2010) which this film ignores and then distills into Ginsberg’s unrequited love for Carr. Krokidas featured Burroughs more prominently then Ginsberg’s biography suggests and unfortunately made his character in this film flat and annoyingly one-note. Burroughs is older than Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Cassady and his work exists as a parallel if not outside of the Beat generation’s work. Essentially, Burroughs’ role in Kill Your Darlings is to experiment with Carr and Ginsberg, helping them formulate new ideas for creativity and experimentation. But, he remains very much a supporting character with little depth and nuance.

Kill Your Darlings in one sense is similar to David Cronenberg’s masterpiece Naked Lunch (1991) which explores the trauma behind the writing of the novel, Naked Lunch. Like Naked Lunch, Kill Your Darlings connects trauma with artistic inspiration. Krokidas’ split emphasis on Ginsberg’s growth as an artist, his exploration of his sexuality, and the murder of Kammerer are given more or less equal time in this film. But because of its Nolan-esque pacing, the ideas and emotions associate with such connections, overlaps, and experiences are stilted. Ginsberg’s motivation to write in this film is intertwined with his love for Carr. Kammerer’s death is the traumatic event that concludes a tumultuous period for all of the writer’s involved with Carr but most importantly for this film, it explores how it affected Ginsberg in a profound and lasting way.

There is a terrific scene in the final act of the film which inter-cuts Carr stabbing Kammerer with a sex-scene between Ginsberg and some anonymous man he met at the bar. The trauma of piercing flesh with a knife is associated with Ginsberg’s own experience of being penetrated for the first time (another similarity to a recent Cronenberg film, Cosmopolis (2012), which depicted another tween heart throb Robert Pattinson being penetrated by the gloved hand of a doctor in a limousine). The finale brings all of these elements together and Ginsberg comes out on the side an assured writer that has now accepted his sexuality and feels no shame.

There appears to be a renewed interested in the Beat Generation given that last year we saw On the Road (2012) which played at Cannes, and Howl a few years before (mentioned above). Along with these feature films is the novel And All the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks co-written by Burroughs and Kerouac which fictionalized these events and was released posthumously a few years earlier. This film will certainly complement these recent releases and for those interested in this period and these writers Kill Your Darlings has a lot that will peak the interest of Beat writer aficionados. But, ultimately the film’s poorly executed juggling act and breakneck pace leaves more to be desired.