Movie review: 'Kill Your Darlings' does get the Beat just right
November 29, 2013 12:00 AM
Clay Enos, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
From left, Dane DeHaan as Lucien Carr and Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg in "Kill Your Darlings."
By Tony Norman / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In recent years, movies about the Beat Generation and its principal writers, poets and girlfriend hangers-on have become a Hollywood rite of passage for a segment of that town's young white thespian elite.
There's something about portraying those 1950s literary bohemians Norman Mailer once casually described as "white negroes" in a famous essay that many young stars believe conveys instant authenticity on the big screen.
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Michael C. Hall, Jack Huston and Ben Foster.
Rating: R for sexual content, language, drug use and brief violence.
Sure, it could be described as a form of slumming. A screen star who made his or her fortune and reputation starring in movies that didn't require a lot of thinking on the audience's part becomes desperate to star in an "art film" that puts the actor in a grittier, less manufactured light.
Ask James Franco, who turned in one of the best performances of his career as the poet Allen Ginsberg in the criminally underrated "Howl" a few years ago.
Sometimes, it doesn't quite work out as planned and grittiness ends up looking more like silliness as anyone who suffered through last year's Kristen Stewart vehicle "On the Road" can attest. Jack Kerouac would be the one "howling" if he'd lived to see what happened to his stream of consciousness novel.
Fortunately, "Kill Your Darlings" co-writer John Krokidas' directorial debut avoids the cliches that arise when portraying the lives of the Beats. "Kill Your Darlings" is based on the true, but somewhat obscure murder that almost claimed the Beat Generation movement in its infancy.
Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) is a 17-year-old freshman at Columbia University in 1944. He has a vague desire to become a poet but lacks the life experience to be a compelling human being, much less a great poet.
Nervous and bookish, Ginsberg, who is struggling with his sexual identity, becomes the wingman for Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), an effortlessly charismatic campus libertine who excels in outraging campus authority while writing as little as possible.
Carr enlists Ginsberg and William Burroughs (Ben Foster), an older, wealthier student who also has dreams of literary glory, but has yet to write a single word. Although inexperienced as writers, the trio calls itself "The New Vision" and commit themselves to overturning the tyranny of the literary academy represented by their stodgy professors.
Their rebellion initially amounts to callow acts, like cutting up books, pranks at the Columbia University library and taking a lot of bennies so they can write the first thought that comes to mind without feelings of self-consciousness. They are joined in their hijinks by Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), a handsome ex-jock and Merchant Marine sailor who has already written more than a million words but has yet to be published himself.
The Factor X in this gathering of future literary touchstones is David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), a former university professor who has followed Lucien Carr across the country from Chicago. Kammerer has taken a job as a janitor just to be near his former student and lover, but Carr is bored with him and has switched his devotion to his comrades in "The New Vision" movement.
Kammerer and Ginsberg develop a mutual antipathy because they both want Carr, although the older man understands the carnal urges better than the future poet does. It isn't long before unrequited love turns into stalking and, eventually, a murder on the edge of New York's Central Park.
The murder crystallizes the scope of Carr's ability to manipulate his friends. Several members of the group are arrested, but Carr has a plan that involves the supreme test of Ginsberg's affection for him.
It is a fascinating internal struggle of conscience that Mr. Radcliffe demonstrates superbly. His depiction of Ginsberg as a corrupted innocent from suburban New Jersey is even better than Mr. Franco's more mature version of the poet in "Howl."
There's nothing oblique about this film, although prior knowledge of the Beats and their philosophy will come in handy. Mr. Krokidas and his co-writer Austin Bunn have nailed the era quite persuasively.
Instead of trying to make a big picture about a big and influential movement, they've zeroed in on the movement's first act and showed how tenuous its grip on life really was. This is a story about young men desperately trying to find an alternative path that veers away from the American dream.
The supporting cast is top-notch including Kyra Sedgwick as Lucien's mother Marian, Elizabeth Olsen as Kerouac's girlfriend Edie Parker, and David Cross and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Louis and Naomi Ginsberg, the hero's estranged parents.
This is not a film for young fans of Mr. Radcliffe's from the billion dollar "Harry Potter" franchise. The movie's R-rating is well earned because of its frank depiction of straight and gay sex as well as a scene of intense violence.
This is a mature film for mature audiences ready to see outstanding performances by Mr. Radcliffe and Mr. DeHaan as two men who were for one brief and shining moment the Verlaine and Rimbaud of their generation.
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
firstname.lastname@example.org and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.