Nothing in 2013 could be more dated than Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and their close-knit circle of literary wackos that called themselves the Beat Generation back in the 1950s, but there’s always a new gang of rebels without a cause to make movies about them that nobody wants to see. Kill Your Darlings predates their first publishing efforts by linking them to a crime committed in 1944, when they were college undergraduates at Columbia, experimenting with drugs, poetry and homosexuality. As a criminal dossier, the movie has a certain morbid fascination, but, as a film, it has no more narrative thrust than last year’s flop retelling of Kerouac’s On the Road. The only thing Kill Your Darlings will be remembered for is the stunt casting of Daniel Radcliffe as gay poet Allen Ginsberg. To shake his Harry Potter image, he has been playing offbeat roles as fast as he can, without much success. Wiry and waspish, peering out from behind Harry Potter glasses, he’s totally miscast as the hairy, nerdy, barrel-shaped Ginsberg, but, after his fans see him making love to other men in the heat of queer passion, there’s no going back to Hogwart’s.
The thread of this clumsy feature-film debut by writer-director John Krokidas isn’t difficult to follow. In 1944, Lucien Carr, a blond, blue-eyed Columbia student with zero talent for writing but a surfeit of charisma for influencing the careers of others, became an early inspiration for the antics of classmates Ginsberg (Mr. Radcliffe), Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Kerouac (Jack Huston). Played to perfection by rising star Dane DeHaan (notable as Ryan Gosling’s troubled son in The Place Beyond the Pines), Carr bucks tradition and form, reading Rimbaud and Whitman, reciting Henry Miller, listening to Brahms, drinking cheap chianti, stealing books from the restricted shelves of the Columbia library, leading his friends on adventurous subway rides downtown to Greenwich Village for cannabis and jazz and introducing them to gay sex and Benzedrine-infused assaults on the establishment.
Lucien Carr breaks all the rules and inspires his ambitious future writer-friends in ways that are not always convincing in the fragmented script by director Krokidas and co-author Austin Bunn, but the most obsessed of his admirers is David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), an older man, former teacher and ex-boyfriend who will not leave him alone. One night on a lonely path near the university in Riverside Park, Carr stabbed his rejected lover to death, tied him up and rolled his body into the Hudson River. Ginsberg, Burroughs and Kerouac were all implicated in the murder through guilt by association, but, in the front-page trial, Carr falsely declared himself anti-gay, labeled his victim a predatory homosexual, pleaded self-defense and was sentenced to two years in jail. Kerouac and Burroughs later wrote a novel about the case, which was legally suppressed by Carr until his death in 2005. After he was expelled from Columbia, Ginsberg dedicated his first book of poems to Carr, who demanded that his name be removed.
The film is less interesting than its elements indicate, and the most intriguing aspects of the story often occur off-screen. The legal procedure is minimized, the lasting effects Carr had on the future writings of the Beats is unclear, and they all come off as heels who showed little interest in protecting Carr from the law—Ginsberg as a gullible fool, Kerouac as a cocky cipher, Burroughs as an indifferent betrayer whose only loyalty is to his drug addiction.
From the incense-soaked bohemian off-campus parties to the source music by Jo Stafford and the Andrews Sisters, the period atmosphere evokes style. But something is missing here, like a clear perspective.
KILL YOUR DARLINGS
Written by: Austin Bunn and John Krokidas
Directed by: John Krokidas
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan and Michael C. Hall
Running time: 104 min.