Judge Gordon Sullivan skipped a beat.
A story of obsession and murder.
Were they brilliant because they were haunted? Or haunted because they were brilliant? It's a question we could ask of most literary "generations" of the twentieth century. Of the "moderns," Fitzgerald drank himself to death while Hemingway lasted longer but met a more gruesome fate. Sylvia Plath is perhaps the most famous of the damaged cases of the mid-century poets, but of her peers perhaps only Lowell really died of natural causes. It's an old story, and one that repeated itself with the Beats: Kerouac died early, but Burroughs and Ginsberg had their share of heartache. Most people focus on Burroughs as the tragic case of the group because of his shooting of Joan Vollmer, but that was hardly the first time that murder had touched the group of writers we now call the Beats. It's a lesser-known episode in American letters, but it gets to the dark heart of everything that would subsequently happen with the writers, from repressed homosexuality to violence and damaged relationships. Kill Your Darlings brings this episode to light with a fantastic cast, but slightly lackluster dramatic impact.
Facts of the Case
The future poet Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe, The Woman in Black) arrives at Columbia University in 1943, where he meets Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan, Lawless), a charismatic student with whom Ginsberg is immediately infatuated. Carr is Ginsberg's entre to an entire coterie of aspiring writers, and he awakes in Ginsberg the latent desire to join their ranks. Carr, though, already has an admirer in the older David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall, Dexter), and the tensions in the group result in a murder.
The most fascinating thing about the death of David Kammerer is that it touches on all of the famous writers associated with the Beats. Lucien Carr killed Kammerer, and his defense remained that Kammerer made advances and was rebuffed. Kammerer pushed the issue, and Carr defended himself by stabbing Kammerer to death. Rather than go immediately to the police, Carr went to Burroughs, who advised going to a lawyer, and then to Kerouac, who helped him cover it up. Though Ginsberg had no direct involvement, he had a history with both Kammerer and Carr, and the "Libertine Circle" certainly played a part.
There are, of course, two ways to go with this story. The first would be to focus on just how suspicious Carr's behavior is; he didn't go straight to the police, he went to Burroughs and then Kerouac instead before hiding the body and then confessing. Sure, some of that might be down to nervousness because of the silence surrounding homosexual desire in the 1940s, but it's still awfully suspicious. Focusing on that might yield a credible thriller. Instead, Kill Your Darlings, takes the more interesting route, focusing on the group dynamics that led up to the Carr/Kammerer relationship in the first place.
It's no accident that Ginsberg dubbed the group the Libertines. Together the group represents some of the better writers of twentieth century American letters, and all had frequent relationships with drugs, booze, and sex with both men and/or women. They were, for the most part, a privileged bunch, with either family money (Burroughs, Carr) or the ability to get a job quickly to earn more (Ginsberg, Kerouac). Into that permissive milieu came David Kammerer, who had been a friend of Burroughs in St. Louis, but who became infatuated with Carr when Carr was a teenager. Kill Your Darlings documents the excess and personalities of this group of brilliant writers, noting their dysfunctions but also their genius.
Given the titanic egos of the characters involved, and the fact that each can (or has) supported their own biopic, it's a wonder that Kill Your Darlings doesn't either collapse under its own weight, or simply offer the most cursory of sketches. Luckily, the film has a stellar cast to bring these characters to life. Daniel Radcliffe continues to impress as a young Ginsberg. He captures the insecurities, the ambition, and the general "not fitting in" that defined Ginsberg until the success of "Howl." DeHaan is a perfect match, charismatic and still innocently naïve. Michael C. Hall shows his more vulnerable side as Kammerer, a man broken by his desires for what he can't have, making a tragic ending inevitable. Jack Huston and Ben Foster are similarly excellent as Keroauc and Burroughs, both of whom grow increasingly worried about Kammerer and Carr. Elizabeth Olsen makes an appearance as the rare woman of the circle, Edie Park, and it's a nice reprieve from all the manliness. Finally, David Cross and Jennifer Jason Leigh are perfectly cast as Ginsberg's parents, with whom the poet always had an odd relationship.
Kill Your Darlings didn't light up the box office, but Kill Your Darlings (Blu-ray) is still strong. The film's period look is well-represented on this 2.40:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer. Detail is strong throughout, and colors have appropriately saturated. Black levels stay deep and consistent as well. The DTS-HD 5.1 track is similarly matched; we get clear dialogue from the center, with a good balance between dialogue and ambient effects. It's not the most directionally adventurous movie out there, but the surrounds get a bit of use.
Extras start with a commentary featuring Radcliffe, DeHann, director/co-writer John Krokidas, and co-writer Austin Bunn. The group is relaxed and shares great stories about the film from conception to production in an easygoing and free-flowing discussion. Krokidas and Bunn return for a 66-minute Q&A that focuses on questions submitted by fans and really gives a lot of details about the film. Another, shorter, Q&A spends 6 minutes with Radcliffe and Dehann before we get 8 minutes of deleted/extended scenes. A short featurette talks to the cast and crew on the premiere's red carpet, and we also get the film's trailer. A DVD copy of the film is also included.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Kill Your Darlings wastes some of its potential by throwing Ginsberg's confrontation with Carr after the murder into the first scene. This sets up a kind of "thriller" vibe that the rest of the film actively resists, and it keeps the film from building tension naturally. I think people would have come and stayed for a biopic about the early years of the Beats, and the death of Kammerer could have been the dramatic high point instead of a wasted opportunity. It doesn't ruin the movie, but it does create a feeling of wasted potential.
If you love the Beats, or any of the actors involved in Kill Your Darlings, this is the perfect film. Though I can quibble with some dramatic choices, it's a well-acted presentation of the events surrounding these iconic writers. The fact that Kill Your Darlings (Blu-ray) features an excellent presentation and a handful of strong supplements makes it even easier to recommend.
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