‘Kill Your Darlings’ — a backstage peak into an obscure Beat incident

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

As someone who never had much use for Allen Ginsberg or Jack Kerouac — the persona as well as the work — I wasn’t all tied up in literary raptures at the prospect of finding more (finding anything) about them.

Thus, “Kill Your Darlings” which is about an obscure but apparently true incident in their young lives, held little interest for me.

The title, is derived (perhaps) from a Faulkner quote — and frankly, I can’t think of anyone farther away from the Beat sensibility — in which he advised would-be writers — “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”

Or perhaps the reference is to Stephen King who wrote.  “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

Nothing against King, but I think he read Faulkner.

All of the above is a sidewinding way to address the movie, “Kill Your Darlings,” starring Daniel Radcliffe (yes, the little wizard himself) as the young Ginsberg.

The picture focuses on his undergraduate years at Columbia where his best friend is the transcendently charismatic Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan).  Through Lucien — or Lu, as he is often called — Ginsberg becomes chummy with a Harvard man named William Burroughs (Ben Foster), who devotes most of his inherited wealth to experimenting with drugs, and Ivy League hunk Kerouac (Jack Huston) who we know is hunky because he plays football and has an actual girlfriend  (Elizabeth Olsen, totally wasted — and I’m talking talent, not alcohol).

Four’s company; five’s a crowd. David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall of “Dexter” fame) is a dubious fifth wheel. Not only is he older, but his place in Lu’s life is sketchy. Or perhaps all too clear. He is both mentor and suitor, writing the younger man’s college papers and expecting (demanding?) sex in return.

The fault lies not in the gender preference, but in the coercive, even predatory nature of the relationship. That doesn’t bode well for Kammerer whom we meet in the first scene, being murdered by Carr. The rest of the picture recounts the events that led up to this unhappy (well, certainly for Kammerer) event.

The moral question posed is, has Carr killed “his darling,” i.e., the piece of his self-invention that must be erased? The unsettling follow-up is a legal notion extant in the ‘40s (and who knows how long afterward? That is, murdering a homosexual man who is making advances is accounted an “honor killing,” not a crime (Hmmm…where have I heard that phrase recently?).

Filmmaker John Krokidas smartly emphasizes the prankish side of these incipient legends. The pretentious side, too (someone is always quoting Yeats or Rimbaud, it seems). In doing so, he hands us a backstage-peek, so to speak, into what made them, well…not tick…but Beat.  After all, they became the icons of a literary movement.

Radcliffe is the sizzle in the mix.  Making yet another daring choice in his post-Potter career, he brings out both Ginsberg’s nerdiness and his career-making otherness, as mother-haunted Jewish boy and self-invented poseur.

However, the scene-stealer — as Krokidas, who co-wrote the script may have intended — is DeHaan. Eerily reminiscent of River Phoenix, who famously died too young outside Johnny Depp’s club, the Viper Room, De Haan has the moth-to-the-flame incandescence of a bullying imp. We can no more resist him than Ginsberg could.  And his legacy is a deadly amalgam of smoke and mirrors.

By the way, when Carr died, the New York Times obituary dubbed him “a literary lion who never roared.” And Kammerer, never named, is mentioned merely as a “hanger-on” whose unwanted homosexual advances were repulsed by Carr with a Boy Scout knife.

Honor killing indeed.

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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