Kill Your Darlings, the directorial debut from John Krokidas, swiftly draws us into the creation of the Beat movement and the murder which thrust Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac onto the path of literary and cultural revolution. Daniel Radcliffe stars as Allen Ginsberg, whose freshman year at Columbia begins as his mother’s fragile mental health deteriorates.
While the film takes some liberties with the libertine set’s involvement in the murder of David Kammerer, a compatriot of Burrough’s who was enamored with Ginsberg’s friend/crush Lucien Carr, the taut, painful coming age story lays bare the era’s anti-Semitism and homophobia, blowing apart the stultifying academic and social mores that the Beats–who originally dubbed themselves the New Vision–sought to overthrow. (It is worth noting that many cultural forces that cause change have sprung from the death of one of a specific circle: Stu Sutcliffe and Brian Jones come to mind–the energies unleashed postmortem propel societal change forward. Freaky? Makes me go all Golden Bough/Wicker Man). And Kammerer’s murder was the explosion that thrust the Beats into their creative maelstrom.
Still, despite the shift of certain facts and chronologies, Kill Your Darlings–which takes its title from a quote attributed to William Faulkner, who repurposed it from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s On the Art of Writing (1916)
Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it–whole-heartedly–and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings
–seduces and inspires with language, camera, production design, and the force of the actors’ talent. The ecstatic scenes in a jazz club, Ginsberg’s fevered writings and yearnings for Carr, a library break-in, Kerouac’s home life, and the collision of sex, death and drugs at the film’s climax, all unfurl in passionate vision.
At the start, and throughout the film, Carr’s murder of Kammerer weighs heavily. Kammerer is in love with Carr, and Carr is dependent on him to write his papers for school, as well as possibly for his life force. Perhaps Carr has drained Kammerer of his own originality and taken the older man’s ideas of literary revolution as his own, that concept is left bubbling beneath the surface. Carr is a tortured young man with ideas he cannot express and he turns to Ginsberg to help him shatter the prison walls of convention (and he hopes, prison). Carr seeks new sensations, new words, new worlds, constantly pushing and luring Ginsberg to more and more dangerous adventures, then cajoling and manipulating him into writing his defense statement.
Played by Dane DeHaan, Lucien Carr is a young, half-formed Lucifer, damned forever, capable of getting others to do for him close to, but never perfectly, what he wants, and is unable to do himself. (In real life, Carr served 18 months in a reformatory after claiming an “honor killing,” that is, the mid-20th century heterosexual self defense against an obsessed homosexual, to use the terms of that time; he spent the rest of his life as an editor at UPI, an appropriate end).
The characters of Kill Your Darlings embrace sex, drugs, thrills, and emotional, psychological and physical violence as means to liberation, to break the circle. Breaking the circle, disrupting the cycle of life, is a theme that recurs throughout Kill Your Darlings, drawn from Carr’s fascination with William Butler Yeats’ essays in automatic writing, A Vision (thus the name of Carr’s nascent literary movement, New Vision) And with Kammerer’s murder, Lucien Carr did break the circle, the circle of friends, the cycle of life. The New Vision circle reformed as the Beats, fiercely birthing the counterculture, and within that restructured shape shattered the literary and societal norms through to this day.
While director/producer and co-writer (with Austin Bunn) John Krokidas told the Hollywood Reporter:
I want young audiences to know that the world is theirs and they can make their stamp. It’s time for them to start their own revolution
hopefully it will come without circle-shattering traumas like that which ended Kammerer’s tormented life.
Kill Your Darlings, rated R, opens October 18. Starring Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg; Dane DeHaan as Lucien Carr; Michael C. Hall as David Kammerer; Ben Foster as William Burroughs; Jack Huston as Jack Kerouac; David Cross as Lewis Ginsberg; Jennifer Jason Leigh as Naomi Ginsberg; Elizabeth Olsen as Edie Parker; Kyra Sedgwick as Marian Carr.