Kill Your Darlings: Meet the Beats

November 29, 2013

Kill Your Darlings
Grade: 88
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Ben Foster, Michael C. Hall, Jack Huston
Director: John Krokidas
Rating: R, for violence, sex, language and drug use
Running time: 104 minutes


Not being a particular fan of the Harry Potter films, I’ve always regarded Daniel Radcliffe with suspicion. I thought it was nice of him to try his hand onstage with Equus in 2008, but based on what I’d seen I had no reason to believe that he would have much of a career after his run as the boy wizard ended. I just didn’t see that he had either the acting chops or the requisite charisma.

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John Krokidas’ engaging first feature provides evidence to the contrary — Radcliffe seemed to me an unlikely candidate to play a young Allen Ginsberg (after watching Inside Llewyn Davis, I might have made Oscar Isaac my first choice to play the poet as a tyro) but he’s genuinely delightful and engaging in the role. He fits in well with the company, which includes Jack Huston (Broadwalk Empire) as Jack Kerouac, Ben Foster as William S. Burroughs and Dane DeHaan (HBO’s In Treatment) as Lucien Carr, evoking OVERSET FOLLOWS:both the energy and recklessness of the inchoate Beat Poets. As the latest of a wave of films about this influential and messy cadre (there was last year’s overly respectful On the Road and this year’s much better but barely seen Big Sur), Kill Your Darlings might be the best Beat film since David Cronenberg took on Naked Lunch more than 20 years ago.

That film was based on Burroughs’ essentially unfilmable novel; this one is based on real but fantastic events that took place in 1944 before any of the principals became superheroes. It is in some ways akin to an origins story. (Burroughs and Kerouac collaborated on a rather pedestrian and numb novel — And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks — based on the key incident here; that it remained unpublished for 60 years, until after Carr’s death, seems remarkable given the notoriety of the parties involved.)

Anyway, as it opens Ginsberg is just another starry-eyed Jewish would-be literateur from Paterson, N.J., with a scholarship to Columbia. It’s there he encounters Carr, whose relative obscurity is belied by his exhibitionism. As Stuart Sutcliffe was to the nascent Beatles, Carr was to the nascent Beats. That is to say that while he was perhaps not the most talented of their number, he had no trouble standing out and he might even have been perceived as the superficial leader of the band.

Ginsberg falls in with Carr and the others, who have already dedicated themselves to drinking up experience and begun to worry about making their mark. They are the speed-eating, gas-sucking, jazz-fueled New Vision American pioneers inventing themselves as they careered through the crazy American night. Or whatever.

But with everything flying around, it’s no wonder someone got hurt.

If you’re familiar with Carr’s story — these days he is probably best remembered as the father of author Caleb — then you know how things worked out. If you don’t, you’ll probably be surprised that you’ve never heard the story before. In any case, Krokidas’ film is evocative of a specific time and place while serving as a bittersweet valentine to callow youth, curdled innocence and sudden, irrevocable violence.


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