For a film that goes out of its way time and time again to tell the audience that its protagonist was a pioneering wunderkind who helped revolutionise an artform and thought outside the box, John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings is awfully staid. Coming on the heels of Walter Salles’ On the Road adaptation and with another Kerouac novel adaptation, Big Sur, on the way, Krokidas’ film was perfectly positioned to take advantage of not only the resurgent interest in the beat generation, but also the cinematic openness regarding homosexuality. While Kill Your Darlings is refreshingly frank about the sexuality at its core – even if the much ballyhooed Daniel Radcliffe sex scene amounts to little in the overall narrative arc – it lacks the throbbing energy of the 1950s beat scene of which Alan Ginsberg was such a pivotal figure.
Focusing on Ginsberg’s years at Columbia University in New York City and his friendship with Lucien Carr, Kill Your Darlings is certainly a handsomely made film and its cast are a decidedly good looking bunch (for people with liberal definitions of hygiene they sure do all have great teeth and skin). Populated as it is with other recognisable faces, all of whom have been better elsewhere, Radcliffe as the bespectacled Ginsberg and the rising talent of Dane DeHaan as Carr are more or less burdened with hoisting the film on their shoulders. They do an adequate job with DeHaan equating himself to the material far better than Radcliffe, but at least he doesn’t embarrass himself like might have been feared. Ben Foster, who just recently gave one of the best performances I have ever seen from him with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, reverts have to his default mode of doing whatever over-the-top thing he wishes and is rather terrible as William Burroughs. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the likes of Kyra Sedgwick as Lucien’s put upon mother, Jennifer Jason Leigh and David Cross as Ginsberg’s parents, plus Elizabeth Olsen as Kerouac’s wife are hardly given ample opportunity to make any impression whatsoever. However, in spite of that, in a neat reversal from Sam Riley’s bland performance in On the Road, Jack Huston as Kerouac is the film’s sole spark of genuine acting life.
Krokidas seems unable to truly determine what he wants the film to be about. Is it a courtroom murder drama? Is it a biopic? Is it a literary adaptation? It tries to be all of these and more and never quite succeeds at either. The murder subplot in which Lucien Carr murders an elder suitor and claims the 1950s version of a “gay panic” defence lacks suspense and tension. The narrative flits about between too many characters to work as a definitive biopic of Ginsberg. It flirts with a madcap as much as it does tragedy.
There’s style in a narrow kind of way that only breaks out when allowed to indulge in drug-fuelled dementia. Compare this to Howl from directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman who turned Ginsberg’s book of poetry into a swirling docu-fantasia with animation and a flirtation between style and form. Flawed as it was, it felt like a film keeping in spirit with the material it was working with. Kill Your Darlings appears to be aimed more at stately prestige than anything close to resembling the messy flow of the revolutionary material at its core.
There’s a scene early on where Ginsberg, in a university poetry class, complains about the conventions and classical rules of poetry. It ultimately proves to be a scene of all too prophetic nature. Even if one doesn’t know the story of Alan Ginsberg and Lucien Carr, the film never hints that it will go anywhere you wouldn’t expect which seems to be a crime of filmmaking. It constantly tries to infer what this period was all about with its Lower East Side walk-ups, booze-fuelled late-night escapades, oversized woolen jackets, and messy mops of flopping hair, but you’d be forgiven for not quite getting what all the fuss is about. Say what you will about Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby or Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe, but for as messy and flawed as they clearly are they remain artistic visions of periods long gone. They try to tap into an energy for an era that can at times feel has become stale through repetition. Kill Your Darlings didn’t exactly need a hip-hop score or psychedelic imagery to succeed, nor does any film if they are engaging enough. Sadly, Kill Your Darlings is decidedly average down to its DNA that it’s impossible not to see the film as a missed opportunity to really get inside Alan Ginsberg’s state of mind that he must have been in as he was turning this most misunderstood artform on its head. The court transcripts that formed the bases of Howl told us that poetry can’t be translated into prose, and sadly Krokidas’ film suggests it can’t be turned into a compellingly fresh narrative either. C