Bright Lights Film Journal

John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings: An Origin Story of the Beats

Lucian Carr (Dane DeHaan) and Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe)

“[Jack] Kerouac declared in his preface to Galloway that the young artist ‘is colored by his symbols. His hue is vivid: he postures.’ This because the artist is in growth, he has just grasped the idea, he has not yet absorbed it. In the fury of recognition he adjusts his physical aspect to the image of his ideas. Living becomes a symbol. [ . . . ] He is in youth a ‘genius of life.’ Such an artist – immature and promising – was Lucien Carr.”
– Allen Ginsberg, The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice: First Journals and Poems 1937-1952

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Films about the Beat movement have become an indie fascination of late. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl (2010) covered the notorious obscenity trail for Allen Ginsberg’s titular poem; meanwhile, filmmakers Walter Salles and Michael Polish attempted to capture the prose of Jack Kerouac in On the Road (2012) and Big Sur (2013), respectively. Naturally, these cinematic efforts offer only pale re-creations of what was once vibrant and moving in print, a common theme for adaptations of literary classics. To be fair, though, these particular films – distinguished by their source material alone – were doomed from the start, because their source (i.e., the movement, and by extension the written work) was fundamentally unstable. The beauty of John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings is that it catches the Beats on the cusp of inspired madness, but still on solid ground. The film follows the formation of the “New Vision,” a loose-knit group of literary hopefuls including Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), William Burroughs (Ben Foster), and Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan); it culminates in Carr’s murder of Professor (and either stalker or jaded lover) David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall); and in true Beat fashion it blends factual events with aggrandizing mythology and favors a poetic interpretation, assuming that truth can be felt more clearly through an altered state.

If the name Lucien Carr does not sound familiar, it’s because his role was to be a catalyst for the Beats. He sang pretty words into their ears like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he helped to spark a literary revolt, and then he sank into the background just as his contemporaries prepared to change the world in their own (im)modest way. In Krokidas’ film, DeHaan portrays Carr as the very kind of artist Allen Ginsberg described in the quote above: a rapturous youth whose ambition and manner of living was a form of artistry itself. When Radcliffe’s mousy Ginsberg first meets him, Carr is dressed like any other Columbia University socialite, but for a bright red scarf hung over his shoulders. He is in repose, smoking a cigarette and listening to Brahms on vinyl. When Ginsberg recognizes the composer, Carr responds, “finally, an oasis in this wasteland.” His lips curl into an absurd smile, and all at once his energy is infectious, an odd contrast to the mournful composition lilting up from the record player. In large part, the credit for this enlivened presence goes to the performer, as DeHaan utters his lines with the conviction of poet – including the lines that are actually quoting poems. And though the film does not unfold through his perspective, save for a couple of off-handed scenes, the film is propelled by his innate charisma.

Daniel Radcliffe as Ginsberg

In comparison, Ginsberg plays the wallflower, excluding a few transcendent moments in which the raging poet he would soon become breaks through (a result of either drug-induced mania or heartache). However, the audience stays rooted with Ginsberg and follows his subdued observations of Carr, and to a lesser extent Kerouac and Burroughs, and gains appreciation of their influence through his eyes. In this way, Kill Your Darlings depicts the nuance of Beat mythology through the grounded perspective of an initiate welcomed into the fold of artistic chaos. And by centering this movement at its origin point, the Beats become surprisingly accessible. Consider, one does not have to understand the confluence of unbridled freedom and inevitable exhaustion, like a candle smoked at the edges from burning too bright, in order to “get” Kill Your Darlings. Here, the impetus for the Beat movement is clear and unambiguous: the students simply wish to leave their mark on the world.

In the film, it is Carr who ultimately evokes the intent of a movement. He questions his fellow writers on how many men it took to start the Renaissance or Romanticism, and inspires a kind of “why not us?” rallying cry. The conversation takes place in a crowded bar, and the hastily formed New Vision thus sets out to fight the “fascism” of meter and rhyme and to topple the old guard of literature. Carr is all high-concept, though, making art out to be a battlefield while staying vague in his bombastic rhetoric. In short, he lacks the killing blow that will level the literary status quo, and the artistic specificity that his movement would need. Sensing his shortcomings, he searches for a voice capable of bringing change, and all he seems certain of is that he will know it when he hears it. When he and Ginsberg first meet, he tells him that he has a need for a writer. However, Ginsberg has yet to find his voice. In fact, when he first shows up at Columbia, he tells his fellow students that he does not drink or smoke pot, keeping to a straight-edged innocence that would soon buckle. Carr intuits that Ginsberg at least understands the need for freedom in the written form, helped by Ginsberg’s defense of Walt Whitman in a poetry class. Still, as Carr waits for Ginsberg to write something important, he grows impatient and sullen, and the complex relationship between the two characters gains traction in Carr’s scheme for revolt.

Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and Carr

More than anything, Carr puts pressure on his fellow writers to be great. He demands they live up to his lofty ideals, while ignoring that there is no real blueprint for artistic genius. And this is particularly significant in his relationship with Ginsberg, who seems to pine for Carr’s approval – and, really, for him. Just as Carr moves to give up on Ginsberg, though, placing his faith in the newly befriended Kerouac, who is rough as a writer but who writes constantly and shows promise, Ginsberg has a breakthrough. When Carr, Kerouac, and Ginsberg steal a small rowboat and drift into the ocean, Ginsberg breathes jealousy as Carr’s attention wanes. But when he is challenged by Kerouac to be more than just a posturing artist, saying “movements are cooked up by people who can’t write, about the people that can,” Ginsberg stands on shaky legs and reads from a folded piece of paper:

Be careful, you are not in wonderland.
I have heard the strange madness long growing in your soul.
But you are fortunate in your ignorance, in your isolation.
You who have suffered,
Find where love hides.
Give, share, lose,
Lest we die unbloomed.

Carr and Ginsberg

Up until now, Ginsberg had held the poem close as if waiting for the right moment to reveal it. Naturally, then, his impromptu reading offers an important first step for him, because through it he affirms the kind of writer he seeks to be. And beyond these words, whose meaning seems to drift somewhere between his discovery of self and his longing for Carr, the clarity of Ginsberg’s awakening as an artist fills this passing scene with a sense of awe and lends to the film’s own enduring soul.

Throughout Kill Your Darlings, there are writing platitudes bandied about in half-irony. There can be no creation without imitation. First thought, best thought. Even the film’s title offers a familiar trope about how writing is strengthened by killing off sentences, thoughts, characters, or entire chapters that one might love but that do not belong in a story. Perhaps Lucien Carr did not belong as a Beat either, but merely as the match that would set them off. Then again, the literal death that ends this film snuffs out the possibility of Carr’s development into a mature artist – at least as a New Visionary or a Beat – because it effectively separates him from the others at a pivotal place in time. To believe Krokidas’ film, the unfortunate tragedy that would send Carr to jail, though only for a short stint, was destined to leave a void in a small group of writers still wanting to change the world, and still unsure how to go about it. But if the “Kill Your Darlings” trope can be applied here, this loss was at least necessary for Ginsberg, who had to kill his deference for the man in order to step out of his shadow.

Of course, this is where viewers find the potential exaggeration of art. Certainly, Ginsberg’s journal entries from the time suggest that he had more agency as an artist, and that he was perhaps not as overtly timid as the film would have its audience believe. Meanwhile, the murder of David Kammerer, either an act of self-defense or not, is consumed into the myth of the Beats – an act of savagery that evades a singular truth, from which this shattered group gathers itself again and thus comes to thrive in a new, mad world. Kill Your Darlings stages this murder in an unfortunate montage that scrapes and claws for poetic meaning, and briefly falters. Even so, it is a forgivable offense in a film that does not lean on the great words of its now famed subjects, but tries instead to create something new. By focusing on how a writer finds his voice and how a movement takes shape, rather than simply transposing a work of fiction or poetry onto film, Kill Your Darlings creates an interpretation of events freed of the burden of a writer’s brilliance. The film may not escape all the trappings of idolatry, but it is at least its own unique creature.