The Beat Generation produced some of the most amazing literary minds of the 20th century, including William S. Burroughs, the author of “Naked Lunch,” Jack Kerouac, most known for his novel “On the Road,” and Allen Ginsberg, author of “Howl,” amongst many other poems. Earlier this year, we got a small taste of their lifestyles in the cinematic adaptation of Kerouac’s novel, which, despite being a rather flat film, was still an interesting glimpse into their lives post-WWII. But how did these great literary figures get to where they were? What were the influences that drove them to create their works? These are the kinds of questions that John Krokidas attempts to answer with his new film, “Kill Your Darlings,” a look at the early years of the Beat Generation.
Primarily focusing on Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), the film starts with him living at home with his poet father and mentally-disturbed mother. He applies to Columbia University and is accepted. It’s not long before he meets the eccentric Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), a student who shares many of the same views on writing as Ginsberg. While Ginsberg’s professor would have him believe that the only good source of literature creation is through imitation of the past, their group “The New Vision” doesn’t hold to conformity.
Meanwhile, we also learn a little about Lucien’s mysterious past. He has switched schools several times over the past few years, and following him every time is an acquaintance of his, David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), the one who writes all of Lucien’s papers for him. The two apparently have a history together, which only becomes more complicated when Lucien’s attention turns to Allen and another writer, Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston).
One of the main reasons that “On the Road” had failed as a film adaptation was that it was basically a random string of events that didn’t tell us much of anything about the characters themselves, a problem that Krokidas seeks to rectify. “Kill Your Darlings” succeeds in that it’s much more of a character piece with a supporting narrative as opposed to the other way around. It’s not so much about the works of Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs as it is about what started shaping them into the literary giants they became.
Being the son of a poet, Allen was already interested in writing well before he met his colleagues, and also well aware that poetry didn’t need to fit into any standard shapes or forms, using rhyme or pre-set meters, thanks to authors like Walt Whitman. Allen’s professor is practically aghast when he suggests such a thing, leading him to refer to Allen as “Walt Whitman Jr.” When Allen discovers that Lucien and his friends are free thinkers and non-conformists, he takes a liking to them immediately, leading to the formation of their “New Vision.”
When Kerouac enters the picture, we get a little bit about his life experiences up to that point. He’s been a merchant sailor, sailing around the world, and as we all know, it’s traveling that would lead to his literary masterwork. His passion for writing is what grabs Lucien’s attention, which, in turn, changes the direction of the story. From here, it focuses primarily on the relationships between our main characters. Allen begins to feel like he’s being spurned for Kerouac, while the ever-present David feels like he’s being spurned for both of them.
This is also where it begins to delve deeper into the emotional feelings of the characters. Allen has strong feelings for Lucien. Very strong feelings. Meanwhile, David is unwilling to let Lucien just toss him aside, which leads to an unexpected development. It’s not exactly a spoiler what with it really happening this way, but just in case some of you aren’t familiar with the history, I won’t go into what happens late in the film. I will say that it leads to a rather hard decision on Allen’s part, one that has him choosing whether or not to help the friend that has meant so much to him, but also seemed quite ready to push him aside for Kerouac.
The film wouldn’t work half as well as it does without the outstanding performances from Radcliffe and DeHaan. Radcliffe does a great job of distancing himself from his Harry Potter persona with this engaging, emotional turn as Ginsberg. DeHaan, who had already shown great talent in “Chronicle” and “The Place Beyond the Pines,” delivers on the eccentricity that allows us to see why Ginsberg would be drawn to him in the first place. Their portrayals and chemistry are at the heart of the film and are ultimately its driving force.
What we end up with is an intriguing portrait of these renowned artists that examines them more like human beings rather than people going from party to party and indulging in all the alcohol, drugs, and sex that they can. To be fair, there’s some of that in here too, but they’re not allowed to control the story. “Kill Your Darlings” let’s us get to know the characters. It’s not an in-depth exploration of their works or their vices, but of themselves, and for that it’s to be commended. 3/4 stars.
Starts tomorrow in limited release.
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