James Rocarols delivers his verdict on Beat poet drama Kill Your Darlings, which is currently screening at the London Film Festival.
If the title of this film suggests iconic destruction then it couldn’t be more apt for Daniel Radcliffe, as it epitomises his latest attempt to counteract the career-smothering effects of his infamous alter-ego.
You can’t really get a bolder reversal of what’s gone before than to take up the role of Allen Ginsberg in the latest sex, drugs and jazz retelling of the origins of the Beat poets. And thankfully it takes all of two seconds for Radcliffe to banish any lingering associations, even with the HP-like spectacles he has to wear.
But to be fair, this isn’t Radcliffe’s show; it’s an ensemble film that achieves a first by focusing on all four key founders of the Beat movement: Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Lucien Carr. The film aims to show that the entwinement of these four men’s fates wasn’t solely based around their literary propogandising, but instead became inescapably enmeshed following their involvement in the death of David Kammerstein, a middle-aged teacher who’d become obsessed with Carr.
Even though the film focuses on the complex relationships between all five men, it’s Radcliffe’s Ginsberg who anchors the story, and we follow him from his early days as a teen poet to his enrolment at Columbia University where he aspires to emerge from his father’s literary shadow.
At Columbia Ginsberg befriends Carr (Dane DeHaan), who shares his disdain for the fusty, revered poets on their reading lists. Along with Carr’s childhood friend Burroughs (Ben Foster), and inspired by the music of their beloved jazz scene, they declare a manifesto to revolutionise the word of literature, which involves literally tearing up the tomes of the past to start afresh.
The only trouble is Burroughs is a hopeless hedonist and Carr simply isn’t very talented; in fact he usually enlists the creepy Kammerstein (Michael C. Hall), who’s followed Carr around various schools and colleges for years, to complete his coursework for him. Later on a further combustible element is added to the mix in the form of Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), a coarser and more instinctive college dropout who’s now roughing it in the navy.
Despite their grand words we see little concrete evidence of their creative brilliance, which I suppose is understandable given that new movements are often founded more on bluster than substance. But listening to them endlessly refine their manifesto and restate their insurrectionary aims without creating anything of their own does begin to get repetitive, even if this is the most energetic section of the film.
Eventually the film settles into its second act, focusing on the fate of Kammerstein, and at this stage it’s no longer a Beats origins tale at all, but rather an account of the bizarre love triangle between Carr, Kammerstein and Ginsberg.
Part of the trouble is then that it seems like a game of two halves, in which the Beat element becomes almost forgotten by the end of the film. My sense is that Krokidas is more comfortable conveying the complex relationships of his characters than recreating the Beat spirit or depicting its significance. Aside from seeing them cut up some classics and spout the odd piece of poetry we don’t really get an insight into how momentous and radically new their works and thinking were.
Ideally writer-director John Krokidas would have more successfully combined both aspects of the story to illustrate how they channeled the experience of being involved in the crime into their own particular manifestations of the Beat ethos: Burroughs’ narcotic retreat into his insular Interzone, Kerouac’s expansive escape from the closeted scene, and Ginsberg’s cathartic release of pent-up, passionate literary aggression. But in fairness such a comprehensive approach might have been too much for one film.
If Radcliffe’s previous post-Potter performances had sent the door swinging shut on any wizardly residues, then here he firmly bolts it and throws away the key. Other performances are equally accomplished, and it’s especially nice to see Michael C. Hall in a film role after his long tenure on some of TV’s most acclaimed series. Only Ben Foster seems to tend towards caricature; we know Burroughs spoke in that distinctively distended drawl in his later years, but was he really talking like that in his teens?
It would be shame for the film’s coverage to focus on Radcliffe because there’s much more to Krokidas’ film; even if it’s ultimately unsatisfying as an account of the Beats’ genesis, it’s still a spirited stomp through a wild and dramatic story.
Kill Your Darlings is screened today, Friday October 18, at London Film Festival. It hits UK cinemas on December 6.