Someone once asked me, "Who the hell is Syd Barrett?" 15 minutes into a conversation about Pink Floyd. "Do you mean Sid Vicious?" they wondered. Everyone knows Pink Floyd, but its founding member's name is less familiar. Who is this obscure Syd?
Lucien Carr, who began one of the most vibrant and lasting underground literary movements of the 20th century, will get the same reaction from most casual readers of the Beat writers. Most of us are familiar with On the Road, Naked Lunch and Howl, the big works from the group's heavy hitters: Jack Kerouac, Williams S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, respectively. But who the hell is Lucien Carr? Kill Your Darlings, the debut film from director John Krokidas, tells the origin story of these young writers, and how Carr, a frenzied young Columbia University intellectual, brought them all together in an episode that ended in tragedy.
If you're a fan of the Beats, you're in for something special, particularly after the disappointment of last year's On the Road. Krokidas could have botched this film a million ways, but he avoids overindulging the clichés associated with the Beat generation, and instead lets their work inspire his own voice. The photography is gorgeous and poetic, with a manipulation of shadow that often nears perfection. The film sustains pace and tension. It is consistently musical and visionary, while restraining itself from slipping into something overt and incomprehensibly avant-garde.
As someone who spent way too much time in his 20s trying to figure out which of his friends was most like which Beat poet, I couldn't imagine better casting. At first I was skeptical of Daniel Radcliffe playing Ginsberg, but even in those round glasses I was only pulled out of the story briefly, when I realized I was watching Harry Potter get a blow job. Dane DeHaan, like an alluringly evil Leo DiCaprio, arouses a superposition of sympathy and sexiness, but one all his own. It's a kick seeing Michael C. Hall and David Cross on the big screen, but for my money Ben Foster steals the show from the first moment you see him, curled up in a bathtub, nitrous oxide mask strapped to his face. His confidently slithering William Burroughs voice gave me all the fanboy chills.
Krokidas doesn't quite pull off an A+ film, though. Kill Your Darlings starts to lose focus in the second half. The dramatic thread of Carr's obsession and murder doesn't quite have the substance to stand on its own—without some interest in the Beats subject matter, the story probably won't grab you where it counts.
Even so, Kill Your Darlings takes ownership of the struggle to find equity between the pathetically indulgent and the mystically optimistic that defines the Beat generation. There's maybe a bit too much sugarcoating of the characters' flaws, a little too much romanticizing, but Krokidas balances it out by providing a strong sense of time and place.
It's not hard to stereotype Kerouac as self-indulgent, Ginsberg as naive and Burroughs as totally deranged, but to do so ignores the context in which they lived and wrote. The '50s weren't that long ago, and we sometimes forget how far we've come since then. The American psyche was still tender from war with fascism—and even more jumpy about communism—which only compounded the nation's disturbing civil rights record with an atmosphere of social oppression toward a wide net of fringe lifestyles and subcultures. If nothing else, Kill Your Darlings is a reminder of how American poetry no longer feels dangerous, and publishing has become something sheltered and safe, lacking real revolutionary substance.
Like Syd Barrett, Carr was a mysterious personality too absorbed in his own experience to develop pervasive work and too off the rails to make his genius comprehensible. But he provided the spark of inspiration and madness that ignited an entire movement. The tragedy is that the only source of kindling for these prophets is themselves, and they burn up or burn out while trying to get the fire started. We need filmmakers like Krokidas who sift through the ashes and tell their stories for them.
Kill Your Darlings continues at the Wilma.