No literary movement gets so much face time on screen as the Beat Generation. There’s something appealingly cinematic about the visceral style that defined those poets and writers (most notably Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs), the frantic, rapid-fire sessions at the typewriter, the high-octane, drug-fueled nights at jazz clubs. In the movies, writing is often portrayed as a kind of sorcery, and not the lonely, dull, and tedious craft it actual is. And of all of history’s writers, the Beats most trumped up writing as a kind of unleashing of secret powers.
This silliness is on full display in Kill Your Darlings, John Krokidas’ debut feature. It tries to capture the energy of the burgeoning moments of the inner-most Beat circle. We meet Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) when he is still living at home in Patterson, NJ. He’s accepted into Columbia University where he meets Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), a pulsing, warm-blooded literary stud with blond hair, puffy lips and Adonis-like pale skin. Ginsberg is, naturally, smitten as soon as Carr leaps onto a table in the Columbia library and recites some poetry before being chased out by security guards. Art is transgression, and together the young men will birth a manifesto of transgressive art – the “New Vision,” and all its lauding of naked self-expression. All that is needed is a meeting with Burroughs in a smoky Greenwich Village party and a run in with Kerouac. Oh, and Ginsberg needs to learn how to write poetry, which he does on cue.
Told alongside this story of literary awakening is a painful, tempestuous love song gone sour involving Carr and an older man, David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall). Initially, Kammerer appears as an obstacle to Ginsberg’s realization of his own affections for Carr, but as things progress we see the relationship is defined by a twisted dependency, while Carr subverts his clear homosexual inclinations and rejects and rebukes the advances of both men. It all escalates to an exceedingly dramatic climax which, if it feels a little too Telenovela or overcooked, is based on real occurrences.
The juxtaposition of these two storylines – the awakening of the writer, the unrequited love – has implications for what the film seems to be saying about writing, and these writers in particular. Much is made of Ginsberg’s half-mad mother, whose delusions and eventual institutionalization haunt the young man’s mind. There’s also a seeming paradox in Carr, whose desire for explosive, unrestrained self-expression runs against his own refusal to come to grips with his homosexuality. In numerous scenes, sex is intercut with images of death, equating the two in a rather blunt and un-illuminating way. In these moments, as with others, Kill Your Darlings beats heavily with a shallow fervency and fidelity to the dogma of self-fulfillment. It is a film caught up in its sense of self-significance. And the Beats heralded self-expression is reduced here into a kind of bohemian caricaturing. That’s because what this film, like so many films about these writers, doesn’t capture is the tone or content of the writing that made them so famous. Lines are tossed about willy-nilly, and marveled at like shooting stars. But the film fails to mimic the authentic urgency in Ginsberg or Kerouac’s writing, instead leveraging these writer’s reputation for profundity as a kind of steroid for a dramatically flabby script.
But while Kill Your Darlings grasps at insights into the nature of art or life, it is its own narrative ineptitude muddles the film’s intent more than its clumsy metaphors. In one particularly visually jarring scene, Carr and Ginsberg spend a night carousing in the Village, stumbling drunkenly onto the street at dawn when it suddenly occurs to Ginsberg that he’s neglected to check up on his mother. One cut later and the two boys are in Ginsberg’s Patterson home, in their same clothes from the previous night, happening onto the precise moment his mother is taken away to the asylum. It’s just one of a few examples when Krokidas’s story plays heavy handed melodramatics to drive home what he is trying to say about these characters. Art is portrayed as a kind of symptom of emotional and sexual abuses.
There are a few sparks, though, and one effective sequence involves the film’s twisting into the psychological state of the drug-experimenting young writers. In one scene the dizzying action at a jazz club slows to a standstill as Ginsberg and Carr walk around the room among the frozen patrons and musicians, elevated thorough drugs and their own keen powers of perception to the state of demi-gods. And Radcliffe and DeHaan managed to find their own tense chemistry, which helps keep the film taunt. And that should answer one question hovering about the film that, nonetheless, should already be settled at this point: there is life after Harry Potter.