Daniel Radcliffe has become quite a fine young actor. He had only a couple of film and television roles to his credit when, in 2001 at the age of 12, he was presented to the world as Harry Potter. Now 24, he continues his journey to redefine himself as an actor by playing poet Allen Ginsberg in the John Krokidas film Kill Your Darlings.
Kill Your Darlings is a quirky and wonderfully stylish film. It is fascinating for what it is, and suffers only slightly for what it is not. Part crime drama, part literary history, and part coming-of-age story of burgeoning, repressed sexuality, the film focuses on a real-life event in the lives of the men that would become the core of the Beat Generation.
Set in 1944, the film details the beginning of Ginsberg’s relationship with Lucien Carr, a brilliant, if troubled, Columbia student. The charismatic Carr was the nexus of what Ginsberg later called “The Libertine Circle” which, in addition to Ginsberg, included future Beat writers William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. Carr’s career success would come in journalism and not fiction but it was he who introduced Ginsberg to the poetry of Rimbaud and coined the term “New Vision” which would later become the “Beat” movement. It was also Carr who introduced Burroughs to Kerouac and introduced both of them to Ginsberg.
The event at the center of this film is the killing of David Kammerer by Carr. The nature of their relationship is ambiguous. Kammerer, Burroughs and Carr were all from St. Louis; Burroughs and Carr from affluent, socially prominent families. Kammerer and Burroughs had been friends since childhood. Kammerer, an English teacher and athletic instructor; was the leader of a youth group of which the adolescent Carr was a member. At the time they first met Kammerer was 28; Carr, 14. The troubled Carr attended a number of prep schools and universities before Columbia. Kammerer, apparently obsessed with the young man, would quit his job and relocate to wherever Carr was attending school.
By 1944, Carr was at Columbia and Kammerer was working as a janitor and living in Greenwich Village. The consensus seems to be that their relationship was not sexual but the film takes a strong position that Carr was anything but the innocent victim of an obsessed stalker. Whatever the truth, on August 13, 1944 in Riverside Park, Lucien Carr stabbed David Kammerer, tied him up, weighted the body down with rocks and put it in the Hudson River. Carr’s defense was that he’d been the victim of a homosexual attack. Arrested and charged with second-degree murder, he pled guilty to first-degree manslaughter. He was sentenced to one-to-twenty years in prison. He served two years and was released. Burroughs and Kerouac were arrested as accessories-after-the-fact but were never tried.
The film of beautifully photographed. Some of the scenes evoking Ginsberg nascent exploration of drugs seem more ‘artsy’ than artistic but not distractingly so.
The individual performances are outstanding. Dane DeHaan is absolutely fascinating as Carr. He is beautiful and charismatic enough to believably inspire obsession while walking a fine line between a tormented youth and a Lord Alfred Douglas-like figure who attracts men with the talents he lacks so he can inspire and destroy them for his own amusement. Michael C Hall is frighteningly and pathetically intense as Kammerer. There is also a wonderful supporting performance by Jennifer Jason Leigh as Ginsberg’s emotionally disturbed mother.
The subject and style of Kill Your Darlings call to mind the 1992 film Swoon, about the 1924 murder by Leopold and Loeb. But this story has more depth. Instead of telling the story of a famous scandal of the rich, queer and decadent, Kill Your Darlings illuminates a number of rich, compelling storylines that lead to a significant social and literary movement. It is unfortunate all of these storylines cannot be explored in more detail. Both Burroughs and Carr are fascinating figures worthy of their own biopics. The story of Ginsberg’s family relationships and their influence on his life and work would be an interesting film as well.
My only real criticism of the film is that it’s focus is as ambiguous as Carr’s sexuality. Presumably due, at least in part, to the casting of Radcliffe in the role, the film is touted as a Ginsberg biography. That is technically true. We see the early influences on Ginsberg the poet as well as the beginnings of his exploration of the “New Vision”. Also, the killing and the events surrounding it are interpreted through Ginsberg’s experience of them. At the same time, everyone’s eyes, including Ginsberg’s, are on the Carr. The effect is to make Radcliffe’s Ginsberg look like a supporting role in his own biography.
That notwithstanding, it is the fascinating story. I enjoyed the movie and came away with a number of topics to explore in more detail on my own. I don’t think I could ask much more for my ticket price.