The personalities involved in and work created by the Beat Generation, the late 50s and early 60s literary movement that introduced Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, have rarely been translated to the big screen with success. It took David Cronenberg and some rather horrifying looking creatures to make Naked Lunch such an incredible adaptation. And last year’s underappreciated On The Road (TMT Review) worked so well in part because it allowed the strain that Dean and Sal’s adventures were having on their lives and loved ones to show alongside the joy of their wanderlust.
Where so many other filmmakers have gone off the rails is in focusing on the self-important chatter of these writers as they attempt to outwit and outshine each other. If you’ve ever been around a pack of young artists as they wax rhapsodic about their work and their plans for the future, you know how difficult that can be to listen to. Unless you’ve got yourself elbow deep in it, who wants to watch the sausages get made?
While that is a huge problem in Kill Your Darlings, the biggest disappointment is that director John Krokidas and his co-screenwriter Austin Bunn actually had a very fascinating story on their hands. The film at least partially focuses on the strange obsessive relationship built between Lucien Carr (played here by Dane DeHaan), a well-to-do Columbia student friendly with the Beats, and David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), a former professor who followed Lucien to New York from St. Louis. The push and pull between the two resulted in Carr stabbing Kammerer to death and then disposing of the body in the Hudson River. (This incident inspired a collaborative novel written by Kerouac and Burroughs called And the Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks.)
The incident is here, but fumblingly wrapped up in scene after scene of ridiculous artistic bravado (shredding copies of classic literature and nailing pages to the wall; breaking into the Columbia library display cases to replace folios and manuscripts with copies of Henry Miller and Arthur Rimbaud books), and the burgeoning friendship — and potential sexual relationship — between Carr and Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe). And, of course, there’s lots of drinking and drug experimentation along the way.
A few of the performances at least keep us somewhat engaged in the experience. Radcliffe ably sheds the last vestiges of his Harry Potter image here, imbuing Ginsberg with the right notes of shuddering naiveté and wonder, and Jennifer Jason Leigh keeps her portrayal of Ginsberg’s mentally ill mother tender and understated. Everyone else involved overacts to a debilitating degree, particularly DeHaan who minces and shakes through this film like a raver on molly.
But perhaps the biggest affront is how Krokidas doesn’t heed the titular advice of his film. The first-time director slathers on the symbolism and lofty camera moves, while also making some laughable decisions like soundtracking the Columbia library break in with, of all things, TV On The Radio. The actual details of what is supposed to be the core of this film are handled with the depth of a Wikipedia entry. The director hits all the little details, but he provides no real context.
Between this and Big Sur, the recent adaptation of one of Kerouac’s semi-autobiographical novels, it may be time for the filmmakers to leave the Beats alone for a stretch. Let their words do the talking and let the fevered imaginations of their readers do the rest.