An old axiom of movie viewing, which you may or may not have heard, goes that you shouldn’t watch a film that features your profession. Sure, Indiana Jones cuts one heck of a figure, but his cavalier attitude toward artifact retrieval has sent a few serious archaeologists chuckling away from his films. So, as you might imagine, movies about writers tend to skew my eyebrows up as they tend to be filled with cut bodies and dashing wordplay. Rarely will you find a film where, met with serious writers block, the protagonist will raise his/her pet to the ceiling and start singing selections from The Lion King because that would be crazy, and crazy isn't attractive.
So imagine my delight at the scene when Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) goes crazy in his block. Desperate to finish his writing he hits his body, ingests drugs, runs horizontally in bed, and otherwise subjects his body to extremes to hit that alchemical high that gets that words churning. This scene, like many that come before and after it, do not show the creative process as some mystical journey filled with bright lights and beautiful prose. The creative journey is sometimes a painful and excruciating experience that doesn’t endear itself to the creator, or those doing the consumption.
Kill Your Darlings is a title that serves as a hint of the multitude of experiences in the film. There’s the overarching plot of a men trying to free themselves of the muses that once guided their creative expression. It speaks to their way of life as they find new palaces of thought and experience before moving on to the next cathedral of sensation. Most of all it’s a sad reminder of the deaths, both literal and metaphorical, that are necessary for transformation and communication of that destruction.
Kill Your Darlings focuses on the early days of some of the premier figures of the American beat movement. Columbia University is a hotbed of growing countercultural sentiment as a young Allen Ginsberg becomes friends with fellow misfits Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), William Burroughs (Ben Foster), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), and others. They do the bare minimum to keep up a façade of academic interest in the daytime university life but it’s the night, with its bars, drugs, and jazz clubs, that fuel their creative minds. While all this experimentation is going on the intense David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) looms over the golden Lucien, less as a muse and more a stalker whose motives become darker as the film progresses.
All of our principal players grow to be titans on the literary stage, but spent their time wallowing in their creative juices. I love every luscious shadow that cinematographer Reed Morano casts on these gents. Even in the pristine halls of the Columbia library he manages to cast the misfits in perpetual dusk. When things finally transgress into night the film explodes in fun both decadent and dangerous, allowing the slightest hint of rust to grace the metallic instruments of their drug and music consumption. The movie never outright shows the greatness to come from these people, but builds their mystique in the shadows.
What impressed me was that Morano, with screenwriter Austin Bunn and director John Krokidas (who also co-wrote), does not leave them as kings of the shadow. They are also predators, overtly leeching off of their bourgeois parents and the clubs that they haunt. One mesmerizing sequence has Ginsberg and Carr coming unstuck in time while they are at a jazz club, recalibrating the elements of the predominantly black cultural center to suit their needs. They might grow into their own eventually, but for now they are satisfied being selfish imps who borrow liberally from what they like in the interest of creating something “new” only to gradually realize the painful personal catalysts needed for true artistry. It's commendable that they were willing to show just how blatantly even our most creative minds ripped off those that were, and are still, not recognized for their contributions.
The performances need a mix of heightened emotional projection as well as the ability to retreat to a wounded protective space. In that sense, Kill Your Darlings is a perfectly cast film. Radcliffe makes a superb Ginsberg, titillated and afraid of the various awakenings that greet him at the campus. I also appreciated the way Jack Huston approached Jack Kerouac, showing him less as the holier-than-thou poet of the railways both his supporters and detractors sometimes present him, and more as a hard-luck working stiff with an accent he can't shake and words he's still struggling to get out. I'm most grateful for Michael C. Hall who, freed from his work on Dexter, touches deeply on our violent history with homophobia - even among the "liberal" pages of American history.
But, even though he's not the true focus, I keep coming back to the superb Ben Foster as the haunted Burroughs. He's a walking ghost, ingesting whatever he can and speaking gibberish - the greatest symbolic reality that they all encompass. There is nothing to anchor Burroughs to this world, just a disconnected series of narcotic experiences and a mind too educated to let them fully bring him to the brink. It's no coincidence that everyone begins their creative streak when they deal with the central tragedy of Kill Your Darlings, all they were before then were blobs of unrealized potential too hooked into their personal sensation to communicate effectively to anyone.
Kill Your Darlings may, at the end of the reel, be accused of the very thing I protested against at the start of this piece - a romanticized view of writers and their legacy. But it's the throbbing, painful potential of creativity brought to life through darkness and experience that courses through the film, not a romantic exploration into the place where dreams lie. That, my friends, is just damn sexy.
Directed by John Krokidas.
Screenplay written by John Krokidas and Austin Bunn.
Starring Daniel Radcliffe and Dane DeHaan.