Kill Your Darlings – John Krokidas and the vision with a beat(ing) heart. (film review)
The elephant in the room for the beat generation heroes (I’m talking Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs) was that they were privileged white boys indulging in the most conformist of empty gestures – youth rebellion. Its taking us a while to come to terms with this uncomfortable fact, though Pynchon declared his discomfort with the beats early on; and then ‘it’ boy of the moment, Dane Dehaan makes a comment in a recent interview about Kill Your Darlings, where he says: “The beats were the original hipsters. I can’t walk down my street without seeing at least three people dressed like Jack Kerouac.” Which, unfortunately, is probably true. The beats were hipsters. They even dressed like hipsters. The drive inside the intelligent white middle class to not be white middle class isn’t sexual however, its financial, and this has always been the case for as long as money has existed, but we (and I declare this from within its walls) mask this discomfort with every kind of attempt at setting ourselves apart from it, art being our rag of masturbatory indulgence which usually results in a short-lived relief. When William S Burroughs is taking all those drugs and condemning the good white folk around him, whose face do you think he sees?
Or perhaps the beats have been hijacked into a kind of conformist performance art, where they perpetually symbolise the banal white middle class semi-artist that can “be real” by taking drugs and fucking around at uni? Allen Ginsberg did go on to discover the true refusal of conformity was to resist the economic pressures of capitalism and of course, culturally we have been far less interested in this aspect of his life and his poetry. Ginsberg was thirty when City Lights published Howl and Kerouac was thirty when he completed On The Road (after several re-writes) which was published six years later. They had developed into far more serious artists than the tethered counter-culture image implies, but the shadow of the beat generation was and remains white middle class privilege and we’ve barely developed the courage to speak of this sacrilege. However in Kill Your Darlings, John Krokidas makes a statement about the New York beats that comes close to reminding us so much of this counter-culture depended on the conformity it claimed to rally against.
Daniel Radcliff is the young Allen Ginsberg, deeply troubled by the incarceration of his mother in a mental asylum with an illness she was never properly diagnosed as possessing. In his first weeks at Colombia he meets up with beat muse Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) who is smooth, cool and could charm a sex-starved man just like Neal Cassady could. However, unlike Cassady, who will become important to Ginsberg later, Carr won’t put out, and prefers to keep the distance of a real muse, although the ‘M’ word is never properly uttered. He has a questionable on-going relationship with David Kammerer (an earnest Michael C. Hall who thankfully looks nothing like Dexter) that may or may not have been sexual at some point, though Carr will claim all his life that it never was. As Ginsberg slowly realises he’s being emotionally cuckolded by Carr, he also realises the same had happened to Kammerer and that Carr may not be all he seems. Sexual repression is confused for emotional abuse in a brilliant visual essay on why sex is always, always political.
Unfortunately, Krokidas isn’t quite up to his own ambition, and the film feels strangely flat, despite the depth of its insights and the very good work of its talented cast. Dane DeHaan really smoulders as Lucien, deliciously sexy, even with the six-week-no-sleep bags under his eyes, and Daniel Radcliff is deep and detailed as the shy, awkward Ginsberg. Krokidas is in control of his subject matter and is definitely close to his protagonist, but the film is oddly laboured so that it feels overlong when it isn’t at all, and key moments, like Ginsberg’s loss of virginity and the absolutely brilliant moment Burroughs is put in his place by his father who just bailed him out of prison pass into an obscurity that makes them look like any other scene. It’s a huge shame, because the sexual tension between Carr and Ginsberg and Carr and Kammerer is very good, and the tension between the ambitions of the group to be leaders of a generation and the need to succeed at Colombia are also clever, deep insights that end up being more interesting than the climactic moments. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen the relationship between the trappings of their class and their ambitions to be heroes of subversion so clearly executed in a film, and these are much more interesting than all the banal suburban drug taking. Krokidas is great with all the cast, but he does seem to have something strong going with Ben Foster in particular who is a genuinely interesting Burroughs in all his perverse weirdness, his oddly well-timed little observations making his skewed perspective rise more and more to the surface.
In the end, Krokidas has made a competent debut siphoning great performances from an excellent cast, but with some sort of pizzaz missing from the final polish. Hopefully he’ll keep making films, because if Kill Your Darlings is anything it is a hopeful promise that this director can deliver the goods. However, I’ll still count it among my favourites of beat generation films.