Sundance 2013: ‘Kill Your Darlings’ is a dark, raucous romp into the intimate lives of the Beats
Kill Your Darlings
Directed by John Krokidas
Written by John Krokidas and Austin Bunn
With Kill Your Darlings, writer/director John Krokidas seeks to decipher what inspired a young Allen Ginsberg to write some of the most influential words of the 20th century and audaciously capture the spirit of discontented youth. In the beginning, Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) suffers in isolation, living with his father poet Louis Ginsberg and a mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who is descending into mental illness. Dutifully following his obligations, he is able to stand a life of quiet desperation up until a point. He is accepted into Columbia University and leaves home in hopes of finding an immortal voice in academia. Radcliffe’s bright, excited and wide-eyed Ginsberg is an innocent boy who longs to be a part of the world that to his dismay wants nothing to do with most of what makes him unique. His budding struggle up against systems that repress the self inspired Krokidas to actualize the bold, impudent and impulsive gang of writer rebels who would take American culture by storm.
Ginsberg soon finds that the rules and regulations of college life are stifling to the creative process. His professor doesn’t admire poetry that goes outside of strict rhyming schemes which in turn chafes Ginsberg’s idolization of the free verse of Walt Whitman. While Whitman is deemed perverse due to his writing style and sexual orientation, the lame lines of the national poet laureate Ogden Nash are heralded. Allen’s open criticism in class catches the attention of brash Lucien Carr who eyes him as a pet project to mold into someone more sophisticatedly adventurous. Carr is daring with abrasive personality that draws people to intensely simultaneously love and hate him. Carr introduces Ginsberg to a rag-tag group of artist intellectuals living on the fringe in New York. Nonconformist Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston of Boardwalk Empire) and rich kid William S. Burroughs are already knee deep into addiction and burning bright with innovation when Ginsberg crosses their paths. The young men attend Harlem clubs together and take drugs to enhance their minds. Soon they can’t stay complacent. Mounting a vandalism of sacred texts at Columbia is seen as the key to causing the kind of ruckus that’ll get people fired up about the injustices and lies that surround them.
The blissfully energetic editing masterfully matches the angst of societal constraint with the sexual, needy vivaciousness of young artists about to break out. They are portrayed as heroes but nothing is held back from the explicit way in which they conducted themselves that often hurt those who loved them the most. Carr jettisons Ginsberg’s personal and professional life but soon abandons him like other projects when he becomes bored. Carr hates himself for having a relationship with another man named David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) who still proclaims his love and follows him around. Carr is a callous egoist who manages to make the vices and failures of Kerouac and Burroughs look mild. The emotional consequences that Carr’s abusive actions and neglect have on Kammerer are devastating. They also inadvertently propel the actions and emotions of the writers around him that would make them legendary while leaving him to fade into obscurity. Michael C. Hall plays wounded masterfully. Never for a moment do you believe that he will let go of making Carr realize he is loved and special, despite the hate he pushes back against. Ben Foster’s Burroughs is severe, malnourished and proper. His rampant drug use is uncomfortably comedic and captivating. Not yet nearly engrossed in the amount of drugs that would lead him to write such novels as Naked Lunch, this is instead a writer on the verge of going over the edge. Brought up in privilege, he is burdened with the financial bankroll of his free lifestyle by his lineage. Foster’s screen time is limited and so the effectiveness in which he conveys the push and pull of his family fortune is incredible.
In one stunning intercut sequence, different sexual encounters are juxtaposed with a disquieting act of violence. Having the act of penetration balanced with images of stabbing is gutsy and feels acutely visceral, especially as it concerns the deflowering of Ginsberg.
The contemporary music used to press the action of film forward is accurately in tune with the changes and temptations of youth. If there’s a fault with Kill Your Darlings it’s that it tackles such absorbing material that it is a letdown when the story ends. It doesn’t feel like the end, just a pause. There isn’t enough time to delve further into Burroughs and Kerouac, who leave you rapturously wanting more. It’s crystal clear that from the antics and tragedy portrayed onscreen as Ginsberg was breaking away from academia and into bohemia, his friends are what made him into the man who desired to converse with the world about how it was falling apart. As he wrote in his now acclaimed but then demonized poem Howl, “the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,” encapsulating the complex, selfish, glorified lives of the Beats that Krokidas wants to show as fiercely living and loving for better or worse.
The Sundance Film Festival runs from January 17 to October 27, 2012. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please visit the official website.