Kill Your Darlings is a sensational story, dully told. The setting is New York in 1943–44, on the campus of Columbia University. While the war in Europe was entering its endgame, several young men were becoming friends and developing the sensibility that would define the Beat Generation.
The story is seen through the eyes of a freshman straight arrow from Paterson, N.J., named Allen Ginsberg. Very quickly, the young poet-to-be falls under the sway of a brilliant classmate, Lucien Carr, who introduces Allen to the illicit pleasures of Greenwich Village—the jazz, the Benzedrine, the sex. Carr also introduces Allen to a rowdy ex-football player named Jack Kerouac.
Carr's charms are so irresistible that two much older friends from back home in St. Louis moved to New York so they could continue hanging out with him. One of them was a dissolute heir to an adding machine fortune named William S. Burroughs. The other man, however, was David Kammerer, who'd become fixated with Carr when he served as his Scoutmaster and subsequently followed Carr wherever he moved for school.
So, against the backdrop of a single eventful school year, while these budding literati were discovering Whitman, Rimbaud, Yeats and Henry Miller, and getting into innocent and not-so-innocent mischief together, the relationship between Carr and Kammerer became more fraught. Then, one night in August, Carr killed Kammerer in a park near campus, and both Burroughs and Kerouac were material witnesses.
It sounds epic, and, in fact, the lives of all of these people were deeply marked by these events. But it's less than epic here, and I think it's because the filmmakers opted to place the audience in the safety of Ginsberg's point of view. I wanted to know more about the three odd men from St. Louis, but that approach would have taken the film in a more dangerous, less predictable direction. Instead, the film portrays Carr as a corrupter, a flighty swain who manipulated his friends, murdered his most ardent admirer and then hypocritically claimed to be protecting his honor in the face of a marauding queer.
Daniel Radcliffe is inapt as Ginsberg, lacking both personality and a New Jersey accent. More vexing is Dane DeHaan's turn as Carr. He's gotten a ton of praise for this part, and indeed, he's seductive. But that, I think, is the problem. We don't see as much decency or hurt as we do fey, unstable Capote-esque charisma. As Kammerer, the doomed ex-Scoutmaster stalking his former teenage pupil, Michael C. Hall's task is complicated by our association of him with Dexter, the good-guy serial killer he plays on TV. As Burroughs (who also became a killer), Ben Foster is a droll presence.
Director John Krokidas and co-writer Austin Bunn compound our distrust of Carr by telling us that, after Ginsberg dedicated Howl and Other Poems ("I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness...") to his college friend, he requested that his name be removed from future editions. What the film doesn't tell us is that Carr, Ginsberg and Burroughs, in particular, remained close, and that Carr, who became a journalist, was a supportive reader and editor of his friends' work. (The film's title is a well-worn editorial admonition to cut out the fancy writing.)
But whatever promise Carr exhibited as a 19-year-old remained unfulfilled: As The New York Times put it in his 2005 obituary, he was "a literary lion who never roared." Carr is an alluring influence in Kill Your Darlings, but the film underplays the extent to which his tragic relationship with a troubled man cut not one but two lives short.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Killer beats."