I have no particular warmth towards or affection for the Beat Generation — a masculine group known best for the writers Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, and the poet Allen Ginsberg, all of whom are represented in this new film — though I don’t dispute that some excellent prose and poetry did come from that group, better surely than anything I could ever hope to craft. It’s just that as a group of people at a particular time and place, they’ve been excessively mythologised over the years, rather eliding some of the more self-regarding macho posturing to which some were prone. That they were quite literally angry young men is clear from this new film, though, which tries to strip away some of the hero-worship. It also affords greater acting range to Daniel Radcliffe, still best known for his role in the Harry Potter films. He is no doubt likely to be thus linked for some time yet, though with this film and other recent odd acting choices (for example, the British TV series A Young Doctor’s Notebook, based on the works of Mikhail Bulgakov) his career path may yet take him nearer someone like Johnny Depp, who effaced his early teen heartthrob status with left-field film roles.
It is the young Allen Ginsberg (played by Radcliffe) who is at the heart of Kill Your Darlings, along with the lesser known figure of Lucien Carr, who was not himself an author but is revealed to be something of a lightning rod around whom the Beats coalesced. Played by Dane DeHaan as a devilish blond-haired rake somewhat akin to a young Leo DiCaprio, Carr unites the nerdy and cossetted Ginsberg with ex-Navy man Kerouac and drug-addled Burroughs (a wonderful turn by Ben Foster, capturing Burroughs’ distinctively nasal delivery, not to mention his privileged upbringing, very well). Scenes unfold in a series of gloomily muted wartime-era sets, flitting between the campus of Columbia University (where they all studied) and the speakeasy-like jazz clubs of the Downtown, linked by an animated line working its way down a period subway map.
The bulk of the film’s second half, though, is chiefly concerned with a murder, set up by the film’s opening images. Carr has moved to New York, apparently to escape a relationship with his obsessive former teacher David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), but the latter has followed him and hangs around expectantly. It is left ambiguous as to how the eventual crime played out, about Carr’s motives and the pair’s history, though not the nature of their relationship, as Carr here is clearly not the heterosexual target of aggression that he pleaded in his defence, using homophobic laws of the era. Then again, if attitudes to homosexuality were quite different back then, the group shown here are relatively liberated, passionately engaged in the early stages of their artistic creativeness (generally conveyed through montage, of course — watching a person sit and write in real-time is rather too challenging for most films — though it still pains me to see their experiments with cut-up fiction, given it involves ripping apart books and pinning phrases to the wall). However, even at this stage, we see Ginsberg trying to pull away from the violent consequences of this energy (which were hardly the first; Burroughs too had his own, later, murder conviction).
If the film seems smitten with its protagonists and their bohemian allure at times, then it’s not always so, and like the relationship between Carr and Kammerer, things get complicated. The film is shot through with darkness (both literal — it is set during a time of war, after all — and figurative), lurching at times frenetically between different tonal registers, but anchored by the fine performances from Radcliffe and DeHaan. There are moments that ring a bit false — Carr jumping on a library table feels too uncomfortably like Dead Poets Society — but when the film gets its tone right, it feels invigorating.
Director John Krokidas; Writer Krokidas and Austin Bunn; Cinematographer Reed Morano; Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Michael C. Hall; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Monday 9 December 2013.