Given the difficulties of the process, an excess of passion is a good thing to have if you hope to get a film made. When the film in question is a biopic, that passion often seems to be provided by the conviction that a historical figure was either much, much cooler or much, much worse than we knew. Whether that’s David Lean showing us how messianic T.E. Lawrence was, or Steven Soderbergh showing us how dogged Erin Brokovich was; whether it’s Oliver Stone showing us what a dick Jim Morrison was or what a dick Nixon was, the respective filmmakers have recognized in these real figures the raw material of great pro- /antagonists.
There are, of course, films that use historical figures not so much for their individual narrative arcs, but as men and women that in some way convey a cultural context, evoke or embody a historical moment—films that operate as a kind of detailed time travel, providing access and impossible intimacy. I think of Another Country, the 1984 film that told of the emotional and sexual connections formed in the ’30s among a group of Cambridge University students who would later become some of the century’s most notorious spies for communist Russia. Another Country was not about spies, per se, but very specifically about England at that time at that school for those young men.
Kill Your Darlings is reminiscent of Another Country in several ways; and to that extent, it is an enjoyable, slightly fetishistic, trip to the university meeting place of young men who would go on to fame and notoriety: Director John Krokidas is clearly in love with the group of young men who became known as the preeminent members of the Beat Generation. He is love with them individually, each of them presented as charming and distinct, as specific in their still-forming gifts as a team in a heist film. Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) is the aspiring Whitman, in thrall to beauty to both poetic and masculine; William Burroughs (a hilariously spot-on Ben Foster) is the patrician, intellectual degenerate who encourages the boys to “derange their senses;” Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) is the ex-jock and Merchant Marine, whose brawny prolificness makes abstractions concrete; and Lucien Carr (Dan DeHaan) is the both the figurehead and the force that brings them all together. As Ginsberg said of the real-life Lucien Carr, “Lou was the glue.”
Krokidas is also in love with them collectively and with New York City of the ’40s. The Ivy League style of a stylized Columbia (saddle shoes, Fair Isle sweaters and tweed), the smoke and the swing and the jump of a Harlem nightclub, the unfiltered cigarettes, the black coffee and cheap Chianti, the late nights typing, the Benzedrine, the nitrous oxide, the easy Barnard women. . . . Oh, I grow faint.
I completely get Krokidas’ fawning over such details. I share many of the fixations. But I wish he had pulled it back a touch. So idealized is the setting—and so unsubtle are the references to what we, the viewers, know to be the fates of these young men—that it is easy to overlook the true central drama of the story: the story, not of the authors of Howl, On the Road or Naked Lunch, but the story of the one who didn’t become famous, Lucien Carr.
To me, the real meat of the story was there: in the details of young, promising and deeply damaged Lucien Carr, pursued from school to school by a devoted, perhaps predatory and obsessive older man (played tremendously well by Dexter’s Michael C. Hall). Radcliffe is the biggest name on the marquis, but Ginsberg’s stake in this story was insufficient for me to feel him an appropriate lead. I think the film would have hit harder had Radcliffe, who did a fine job, been dropped back to an interesting support player, on par with the dabs and pops of Foster and Huston.
Kill Your Darlings is, for the most part, an entertaining and competent romp through that other country, the Columbia University where the Beats became the Beats. (With the one really weird exception of the inclusion of the TV on the Radio track “Wolf Like Me,” which is jarring in its anachronism.)
But it could have been something more tragically compelling, had Krokidas taken his own advice.