For me, the counterculture movement is the single most important cultural phenomenon in the whole of American history. It encompasses a break from the prescriptive nature of tradition, a rejection of unquestioned authority and an incorruptible belief in personal freedom. It is – to steal a line from the film – “an oasis in this wasteland” of cultural mediocrity; it is the cornerstone of some of the greatest art that the Western World has ever produced, without which we wouldn’t have even a fraction of the works of music, cinema and poetry that are most revered today.
Like all great movements, counterculture began at the bottom of a bottle of spirits in a University dormroom. Kill Your Darlings, the directorial debut from John Krokidas, is all about how the Beat Generation – which later became the San Francisco Resistance, a movement from which counterculture was then able to flourish – first came to know each other. Covering Allen Ginsberg’s freshman year at Colombia University, the film chronicles the true tale of David Kammerer’s murder at the hands of his protege and lover Lucien Carr, and the part that Ginsberg – along with Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs – played in the drama.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Kill Your Darlings is that it tackles its subject matter incredibly critically. This isn’t a film that seeks to romanticise the Beat Generation, nor is it one that seeks to brush its casualties aside; rather it is a film that examines the movement in all of its selfish, navel-gazing glory. In its exploration of the movement’s origins, the film questions its aims, its methods and, perhaps most importantly, its validity and, as such, the obvious traps of self-indulgence and mawkish praise are mostly avoided.
Furthermore, though Kill Your Darlings is a very stylish, era-conscious film, it never lets its respect for its period overwhelm the tragedy or brutality of the story. For a debut effort, Krokidas is surprisingly restrained in his approach. The occasional quirk gets in the way here and there but, for the most part, this is a film that is deeply respectful to all of the individuals involved, and to the harsh reality of what was happening. In the film’s interpretation of certain people – Carr and Kammerer in particular – the occasional level of artistic licence is explored but, when you’re dealing with men as influential as these, that is surely to be expected.
Of course, for many critics the main focus has been the kiss between Carr and Ginsberg, which occurs towards the latter end of the film. It’s no secret that Ginsberg was a homosexual, nor is it a secret that he was utterly besotted by Lucien Carr, and the films attempts to juggle the romantic with the tragic are mostly successful, if not entirely so. A certain importance is placed on Ginsberg’s sexuality because of how important it was to his work (Ginsberg spent his life fighting against moral authority, materialism and sexual repression) and though the film does a grand job of exploring Ginsberg’s fraught and intense relationship with Carr, it has a tendency to slip into melodrama. The negative effect of this is that the murder scene – the focal point around which the film is built – doesn’t feel as shocking as it should.
On a similar note, a lot has been written about how this film marks a real shift for Radcliffe who, despite his turn in The Woman in Black, is still very much “that Potter kid”. On this point I agree; Radcliffe isn’t the greatest performer in the World – heck, he isn’t even the greatest performer in this film – but he’s come a very long way since the Potter franchise ended, and I think he does a fine job of portraying a young Allen Ginsberg. However, he is unable to compete with the effortless performance of Dane DeHaan who steals every single scene he’s in. DeHaan brings to Carr a burning intensity; like Ginsberg, we can’t help but be seduced by his wit, his style and his charm, yet deep down we know he isn’t a good guy. He has a look that is at once brooding and terrifying, and the character’s persona is utterly mesmerising in an almost dream-like way. Radcliffe is good, don’t get me wrong, but he’s completely upstaged by the infinitely more talented DeHaan.
Having said that, Kill Your Darlings is in many ways an ensemble piece. It couldn’t survive without the talents of people like Jack Huston (who plays Kerouac exactly as I’d always imagined him), the wonderful Ben Foster (whose entire career remains bafflingly unappreciated), and Michael C. Hall, who finally shakes off the shackles of Dexter and delivers a sterling performance as Kammerer. Even when the script is at its most stodgy, the combination of performances ensures that the film remains consistently engaging.
Kill Your Darlings is a fascinating film that a fan of the Beats like myself was never not going to enjoy. I think my admiration for the era has blinded me to some of the film’s more obvious faults but I’m not sure that’s a problem. After all, this is a messy but loving film about a movement whose tagline could easily have been “messy but loving”. With a powerful screenplay, intense but suitably nuanced performances and solid direction – in combination with some wonderful cinematography that really captures the tone of the era – Kill Your Darlings is a marvellous little film. It’s far from perfect but, at the end of the day, so were the Beat Generation and the movements that it subsequently spawned so, in a sense, its imperfection is actually quite fitting.