Kill Your Darlings: Hitting the Beats

Kill-your-darlings (1)THE BEAT Generation represented something of a revolution in the straight-laced, meter-locked literature of its time, embodied most readily in Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, a viscous blast of post-war fury. In a time when Ulysses was outright banned in America, the Beats overturned convention and traditional ideas of poetry and prose. Kill Your Darlings depicts the first steps of the movement when Ginsberg encounters the Aryan wunderkind Lucien Carr; set against the restrictive backdrop of Columbia University in wartime America, the two plot their literary rebellion along with William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac.

The work of the Beats was often influenced by the (funnily enough) beats, rhythms and momentum of jazz music, and the film briefly captures that sense of propulsion in the hyper-kinetic opening half hour as Ginsberg, Carr and Burroughs cut out pages of Leviathan and Dickens while getting hammered on booze and Benzedrine. Unfortunately, this infectious energy does not carry the rest of the film as the focus shifts from the foundation of the Beats to the strange, romantic triptych between Ginsberg, Carr and David Kammerer.

What begins as a raucous celebration of the Beat Generation morphs into an examination of not only their ethics and intentions but also a candid look at what it meant to be homosexual in a deeply homophobic time. The resulting tonal shift is striking, switching from irreverent romp to sparse solemnity quite sharply. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself – it’s really very fitting – but the effect is a little jarring, throwing the film slightly off-kilter. It subsequently struggles to regain its prior, emphatic clout, despite the bristling energy of the performances.

The characters of Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Kerouac (Jack Huston), so integral to the movement, are largely peripheral in the film; they are amusing diversions and side-attractions, given little to do with the scant development they are afforded. Though he shares a couple of scenes with Edie Parker, his long-suffering wife (played with verve and wit by Elizabeth Olsen), Kerouac is rendered a grinning LAD about town, while Burroughs is a drably monotone stiff in a suit and a combover. They are glorified footnotes to the central focus of Ginsberg, Carr and Kammerer.

Daniel Radcliffe, so egregiously miscast in Woman in Black, impresses considerably here, handling his portrayal of Ginsberg with precision and care, conveying wounded affection and wild-eyed fervour with equal capacity. Dane DeHaan as Carr smoulders with a passionate zeal that gradually dissolves into impotence once we realise he has to get everyone else to do his work for him. Michael C. Hall, hot on the heels of the deeply controversial Dexter finale, rocks a mighty beard and carries Kammerer with earnest sincerity, albeit looking slightly deranged. The film works because it is centred on these three characters, the potency of their relationship propelling a fairly limited plot.

Though first-time director John Krokidas is assured with his camera placement, an over-stylisation in places clutters the narrative. The montages of frantic typewriter tapping intercut with polo-neck pondering and jazz bar shenanigans feel a little been-here, done-that too. The direction is at its best when stripped back and simple, the narrow close-ups emphasising the anxieties lying at the heart of a nascent movement in search of an identity. “We’re not anything yet,” Carr says, his uncertainty echoing into the climax.

Kill Your Darlings hits the standard beats (ha!) for a film about the Beats – typewriter montages, smoke-wreathed jazz bars and fierce philological debates peppered with Charlie Parker – but it also portrays them as vulnerable artists striving for a voice and creative outlet. Though literary – very literary – the Beats are fundamentally human in this film, malleable and ungrounded, unlike other more monolithic portrayals like the recent On the Road. The film has a strong emotive core and that is what remains ringing in our ears long after the trumpets die.