“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, dir John Ford
In a smoky New York jazz bar in 1944, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Lucien Carr and David Kammerer heatedly discuss the possibility of a new form of poetry. They move through the different popular movements in history, citing the Renaissance as having been started by two individuals and the Romantics by five.
Inspired to do the same, Ginsberg coins the name ‘A New Vision’, for their own movement and the group sets out to become the poets of their generation. Only two of the four would realise this vision and become immortalised, along with Jack Kerouac, as The Beats.
Kammerer’s murder at the hands of Carr would be the defining moment in the movement’s creation.
John Krokidas’s debut feature casts Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe as Ginsberg, with Dane DeHaan as Carr, Jack Huston as Kerouac and Dexter’s Michael C. Hall as Kammerer.
Rounding out the cast is Ben Foster, who adds another impressive performance to his repertoire, with a highly mannered impersonation of Burroughs.
While on the surface the film sets out to redress the rumours surrounding Kammerer’s death, depicted here in a more sympathetic light given his amorous pursuit of a then-minor Carr across the country, it is also remarkably self-reflexive.
The Beats themselves continued to mine the tragedy in their subsequence careers as writers.
Some examples include Burroughs and Kerouac collaborating on And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, with the latter then returning to the events for his novel Town & City, and Ginsberg dedicating Howl to Carr.
As such, Kill Your Darlings is yet another version of the origin of The Beats. Cleverly Krokidas and his co-writer, Austin Bunn, draw attention to this. Ginsberg, it is suggested, finds his voice as a writer by making the events of that fateful night in the park his own story.
DeHaan delivers the line: “It’s Rimbaud. It’s overwritten, I know. He’s allowed,” with a smirk and the film in turn indulges in having its characters pontificate in an affected manner on the importance of poetry while drinking in bars, even as their peers are dying in Europe.
The film is self-aware enough to allude to the privilege of these young men, but still celebrate their literary importance.
Radcliffe is excellent as Ginsberg, oscillating between doomed infatuation with Carr and passionate awakening to his abilities as a writer.
DeHaan has the difficult job of being both charismatic and utterly self-absorbed, with the script arguing that Carr cynically used Kammerer’s infatuation, only to then use the ‘honor slaying’ defence.
Whatever really happened probably lies somewhere in-between, but as a tribute to the enduring myth of The Beats, Kill Your Darlings is engrossing and thoughtful.
Kill Your Darlings (MA 15+)