Can’t Beat the Rap, by David Bax
There’s always been something off-putting to me about the Beat writers but, if I’ve struggled to put the exact reasons into words, John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings – or, at least, parts of it – has made my objections plain. It’s not the writing itself that repels me; it’s the attitude of the movement’s acolytes. I can’t get behind the lionization of a bunch of navel-gazing slackers under the pretense that they had it all figured out, man.
That doesn’t mean that I’d refuse to enjoy a movie about them, though. They were people, after all, with stories of their own. In theory, that’s the motivation behind John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings, which tells the true story of the young Allen Ginsberg, the pretty young Jack Kerouac and the relatively young William S. Burroughs at the formation of the movement. These luminaries-to-be orbited socially around a lesser-known Beat named Lucien Carr who helped define their ideals and, one August night in 1944, killed a man in Riverside Park.
Without wasting any time whatsoever, Krokidas falls victim to the glassy-eyed hero worship that causes people to think that any figure they admire must always have been extraordinary at every moment. The young Lucien (Dane DeHaan) is constantly making proclamations and being provocative and, essentially, embodying the glorified version of the Beats before they even existed. There’s an argument to be made that these early sections play out this way because this is how Carr appears in the eyes of Columbia freshman Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe). But there’s no hint that Carr is full of shit. He has problems but they are all external, embodied chiefly by the former professor who has followed him to New York from St. Louis, obsessing over him the whole way (Michael C. Hall as the ill-fated but possibly dangerous David Kammerer).
Eventually, the movie calms down a bit and even has the wisdom to allow some voices of common sense to intrude, such as the professor who reminds Ginsberg that if he thinks college is a waste of time, he can always go join the thousands of other boys his age fighting and dying for their country in Europe and the Pacific. It certainly helps that Ginsberg is the lead, given that Radcliffe is the best thing here. Not only is his American accent perfect, he adopts without fail the stance and mannerisms of the guy who no one realizes is the smartest one in the room, least of all himself. He’s racked with insecurities that are both the byproduct of and the largest detriment to his genius.
DeHaan is the other lead and, though he’s usually reliable, he overdoes it a bit here, gesticulating and brooding as if he thinks the camera is in the next room and not right in his face. Jack Huston plays Kerouac the way the boys see him, as a symbol of something they can’t yet define rather than a person. And Ben Foster add some weird color as Burroughs, though any more of him would be too much. Hall, on the other hand, is terrific and more of his performance would have been welcome. He’s alternatingly – and sometimes simultaneously – terrifying and pathetic.
Krokidas’ use of a dull brown, yellow and gray palate along with his agitated, restless camera give the film more a point of view than last year’s Beat movie, the overly prettified On the Road adaptation directed by Walter Salles. But the telling of the story doesn’t have the same distinctiveness. Rather than exploring how this violent event both catalyzed and shattered a soon-to-be influential movement in its infancy, Kill Your Darlings ultimately takes the shape of a sordid crime fiction (true though it may be) with famous names plugged in, like a down-market League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.