Kill Your Darlings: A Startling Take on the Beats

Man, I’m Beat!

I watched this film over the Thanksgiving weekend and the more I think about it, the more I think its approach to its subject is kind of remarkable.

Kill Your Darlings is based on the true story of a murder that took place at the inception of the Beat literary movement. It stars former Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe as the poet Allen Ginsberg and details how, as a student at Columbia University, Ginsberg came under the sway of his charismatic fellow student Lucien Carr, played by Dane DeHaan. With William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), the group conceived the idea of the New Vision, which ultimately produced Ginsberg’s famous neo-Whitmanesque poem Howl, Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and Kerouac’s On The Road.

But before all that happened, Carr stabbed then drowned his sometime lover David Kammerer (played by Dexter’s excellent Michael Hall), claiming Kammerer had attempted to sexually assault him. Because of a law that gave special dispensation to straight men under attack by homosexuals, Carr got off with a light sentence and went on to a long career with United Press International. I will refrain from making any comments about the kind of people who go into mainstream journalism. The facts speak for themselves — or would, if there weren’t mainstream journalists to cover them up!

Anyway, what is remarkable about this movie is that it casts this radical movement in a very sour light. It’s not that it ignores or minimizes the quality of some of the work it produced — On The Road is a wonderful book and Howl is still very powerful stuff — it’s that it questions the value of its rebellion and the morality of its participants. Throughout the film, we’re constantly made aware that there is a war going on, that men are sacrificing their lives to free the world from the Nazis while these self-obsessed college boys are tearing up great works of literature and futzing around with mind-altering drugs. Even at their most sympathetic, the Beats come across as youthful poseurs, talented but morally shallow. And miraculous to relate, the stodgy college professor who defends tradition (I believe he’s supposed to represent the great Lionel Trilling) also ends up being the wisest and most open-minded person in the picture.

I’m not the only person to notice this. A review from Britain’s conservative Daily Telegraph, quoted in Wikipedia, says “Unlike Walter Salles’s recent adaptation of On the Road, which embraced the Beat philosophy with a wide and credulous grin, Kill Your Darlings is inquisitive about the movement’s worth, and the genius of its characters is never assumed.” Given that this is the directorial debut of John Krokidas, just 40 years old and, like Ginsberg himself, openly gay, it’s a pretty shocking display of thoughtfulness, perspective and even wisdom.

Anyway, I really enjoyed this film, thought it smart and elegant and different. All the performances are terrific, although Foster, one of my favorite young actors, is wasted on the small part of Burroughs. As a supporter of gay rights, I found its treatment of the subject restrained, compassionate and multi-dimensional. If you feel differently, you might feel differently. Also, there’s a somewhat explicit gay sex scene.


Cross-posted from Klavan on the Culture