So many movies about “The Beat Generation,” so few that have the rhythm.
“Kill Your Darlings” joins “Howl” and “On the Road” and “Big Sur” in the recent run of offbeat and off-the-beat indie films taking aim at that post-World War II literary revolution. It’s sort of a prequel to all the rest, the movie about how the would-be literary lions whom Allen Ginsberg labeled “The New Vision” met, fed each other drugs and fed into each other’s manias in the New York of the early 1940s.
Yes, The Big One –WWII– was going on overseas. But young Ginsberg, played by Daniel Radcliffe, was off to Columbia University to find his voice and take his place alongside that earlier rhyme-and-meter eschewing revolutionary, Walt Whitman.
And while he was at it, he’d check out the Harlem jazz scene, the Greenwich Village gay bars and whatever hallucinogens trust fund baby William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster, serpentine and stoned) passed along.
“Darlings” is about a great love of Ginsberg’s, the lazy rich bisexual flirt Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), a future editor who lets his infatuated lover David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) write his school papers and provide him with booze even as “Lu Lu” dismisses the older man’s attentions.
Carr is one of those figures in history doomed to be not a creator nor even really a muse. He’s just a hip, happening fellow who wants all the cool kids to hang with him, the would-be instigator of a revolution.
“This is just the beginning, you know,” he says, several times in several different ways. “It’ll be us together, at the beginning.” And the lovesick Ginsberg takes it to heart.
The hyper Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston, spot on) shows up, a merchant seaman returned to his Columbia haunts to bar hop, dig jazz and infuriate his lady love, Edith (Elizabeth Olsen).
They raid the sacred stacks of Columbia’s library, putting banned writers like Henry Miller on display in place of Beowulf and and a First Folio of Hamlet. They drink and drink and play at sharing suicide pacts. The lads do speed and take a “First thought, best thought” ethos to their writing. Kerouac is their hero, because he’s already got “a million words” under his belt. Punctuation? Not so much. Were they good words? Not yet.
It’s an “Allen in Wonderland” view of this Beat pre-history, a giddy gay man’s coming of age (explicit sex, of course) framed within a grisly death that opens the film and is explained in the third act.
First time feature director John Krokidas shoots everyone in loving, sensual close-ups. Yes, Radcliffe makes a splendid, swooning homosexual (Ginsberg is always portrayed as such), though there’s not a lot of chemistry with DeHaan. Foster has what always turns out to be the chewiest role in such tales — the drug addicted sage Burroughs, who went on to write “Naked Lunch.”
Krokidas runs footage backwards, now and then, aiming for a jumbled, jangly movie capturing the energy of the speed-freak Beats. But the movie is one long sag, lacking the momentum of “On the Road” and the soulful moments that “Howl” managed.
It’s more a half-hearted Ginsberg bio (David Cross plays his poet father, Jennifer Jason Leigh his mentally ill mother) than a “How they learned the Beat” piece. And for all its character’s talk of how they will “make the world wider” with their work, it’s too scattered and narrow in focus. There just aren’t enough scenes of Allen testing his teacher (John Cullum) or samples of that writing to give this film the feel of history written on Benzedrine. Which is what was called for.
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, language, drug use and brief violence .
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Michael C. Hall, Jack Huston, Ben Foster, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Elizabeth Olsen
Credits: Directed by John Krokidas, scripted by Austin Bunn and John Krokidas. A Sony Classics release.
Running time: 1:44