In dramatic retellings involving the Beat Generation, drugs, sexual exploration and a passion for poetry make up a large chunk of the narrative pyrotechnics, churning out predictable reimaginings of an -- at the time -- unpredictable revolution. But the true origins of the Beat crew may be darker and more dire than most audiences are aware. With Kill Your Darlings, his debut feature, director John Krokidas delves into the real events leading to a murder that both broke apart and shaped the Beats as we know them today.
Selected for both the Toronto International Film Festival and Sundance, Kill Your Darlings features a cast of actors playing the younger, lesser-portrayed versions of the Beats: Imagine here an awkward, green and dutiful Allen Ginsberg, played surprisingly -- and convincingly -- by Daniel Radcliffe.
Though rooted in San Francisco history, the Beat Generation's origins are in New York; Kill Your Darlings follows Ginsberg's move from the suburbs of New Jersey -- playing the role of a dutiful son to his mentally ill mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) -- to the creative hotbed of New York, where he's been accepted to study at Columbia. There, he meets the magnetic, flighty, beautiful Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), who connects with him over poetry and introduces Ginsberg to the underbelly of 1940's New York: jazz clubs, marijuana, and parties, during which a masked William Burroughs (Ben Foster) inhales nitrous oxide in a bathtub.
It's a lifestyle well suited to Ginsberg, who, in spending time with Carr, begins to grow into his own. That he follows him around like a puppy -- alongside his other, long-suffering admirer, David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) -- is Ginsberg's Achilles' heel. DeHaan's portrayal of Carr is as a muse with a magnetic pull that reels in visionary thinkers, yet with little artistic agency of his own. (His college papers are all written by Kammerer on his behalf). But for all of the creative manpower Ginsberg holds, his place in the circle lies directly under Carr's thumb.
With Lucien orchestrating the movement, Ginsberg, Burroughs and a "discovered" Jack Kerouac form "The New Vision," a collective that channels its high ideals for art and culture into schoolboy pranks. They rip apart the canon of accepted literature, literally tearing away at expensive volumes; they alter the display case in the university library into a crude exhibition of the human anatomy. Kammerer, ever the spurned lover, looks on jealously from afar.
But like with any high, there's the comedown. The end of this chapter? It concludes in Kammerer's murder. Whether Lucien murdered an obnoxiously eager ex-lover, or simply defended himself from a crazed stalker is a debate that's never quite been settled.
Even with the gauzy veneer, the film avoids becoming the standard period piece. And for all the noir-like intrigue, the director himself points to Kill your Darlings as ultimately a coming-of-age story about college. It's one that quite aptly captures the headiness of first exploring the previously unexplored, and one that frames a period generally wrapped in nostalgia in a way that feels contemporary. From the modern soundtrack to the free-form camerawork, it taps into the timelessness of adolescent yearning.
The story behind the casting itself tells of a thoughtful director: Krokidas, who also co-wrote the film, actively sought Radcliffe for the role because of the parallels he saw between the actor's and Ginsberg's lives. His idea of the character was of one who'd have much to prove to the world, having played a life-long role he wanted to cast off. With Kill Your Darlings, we witness that along with Ginsberg, Radcliffe -- star of the blockbuster Harry Potter series -- shrugs off his former role, too. As Ginsberg learns in poetry class, by "killing your darlings" one is better able to find one's own voice, and access a greatness festering inside, waiting to be released.