Will the circle be unbroken? John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings uncovers Allen Ginsberg’s dance with death as the Beat generation stage a writers’ revolution.
The Broken Circle Breakdown by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
We’ve already had Howl and On The Road, but from the rapid cutting of the get-go we know this isn’t going to be just a tame bio-pic of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Immediately as John Krokidas’s Kill Your Darlings begins, we’re thrust into a world of bloody murder and broken honour, as the title hits the screen like three strikes with a sledgehammer. It’s 1943, World War II rages in Europe and homosexuality is illegal, but Kill Your Darlings is the little-known story of the formative hijinks of the founding fathers of Beat – Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac all circling around one man – Lucien Carr, the muse and rebel setting their worlds on fire. Not content with the world’s narrow constraints, Carr girds all those around him into a literary revolution, a New Vision to rival the men of the Renaissance. And it’s creation beyond the confines of wartime austerity and Forties’ morals, determined to shock the world and by so doing make it wider.
Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) is living at home with his parents, doing the housework and caring for his mentally ill mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh). But when he finds out he’s been accepted to Columbia University his promise to look after his mother and prevent his father from committing her to an institution evaporates, entranced by fellow student, aesthete and iconoclast Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) and led into the dark underworld of Christopher Street with its hip (and gay) parties. Meeting William Burroughs (Ben Foster), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and Lucien’s one-time lover David (Michael C. Hall), the would-be writers are inspired to forge a literary revolution, armed with a mission (to break all the rules) and a manifesto. But as money, live and ambition converge into desperation and bloody murder, it’s a collective catatonia of mythic dimensions.
Inspired by Yates’ A Vision, this fellowship of Carr, Ginsberg, Burroughs and Kerouac is determined to make its mark on the world, beyond the collegiate souvenir photographs on the walls of Columbia’s student bar. Ripping up literary history, literally, and pinning their manifesto to a wall, they’re determined to kill all their darlings and create something utterly, viciously and shockingly new. But beyond their library break-ins and their escape from the (fascist) guardians of culture, with its rhythm, meter and verse, there’s barely a work to their movement’s name. But their artistic revolution begins with a reformation of the self – death mocked up in a staged suicide, to bury the mothers’ sons, citizens and students they once were and give birth to poets, visionaries and law-breakers. Fuelled through literary gatherings, drugs and jazz, their movement becomes a mutually inspirational stage at once inside, apart and against the world (in a sublime jazz club scene frozen in time), challenging each other to scale new heights, until their circle becomes unbroken.
With Carr at the helm (a muse but no writer), the fellowship begins to falter, Allen substituting for David with the promise of writing papers in exchange for the merest hope of keeping Carr in Columbia and of sex. Carr, for all his boundless and inspirational energy, is deeply self-hating, his once blissful backstory with David filled in through Allen’s criminal deposition. And there is a sexual chemistry between Lucien and Allen, a shared (but immediately disavowed) kiss, and a bookcase blow job, merely chaperoned by an obliging Barnard girl, as the two men eye each other intimately. But there’s a very Forties attitude to homosexuality, silence as men are arrested in Christopher Street back rooms, and an ambiguous sliding between friendship and love, as referenced in Shelly’s Elegy On The Death Of John Keats. And Lucien is never able to come to terms with his male lovers, even asking Ginsberg, after Howl, never to dedicate another book to him again.
Kill Your Darlings is a self-contained circle, structured around its impenetrable ring of lovers determined either to become part of each other or destroy each other. For an openly gay director, there’s not much queer subtext, just a cruel irony as Ginsberg contemplates using the homophobic honour slaying clause in Carr’s defence, painting ex-lover David as a predatory homosexual. But instead, Ginsberg’s deposition, retitled The Night In Question swings from truth into fiction, reveals the Beat writers’ relationship with reality and truth. There’s some rather clumsy backstory, Ginsberg’s mother invoking the film’s title as she insists committing her to a psychiatric institution was the best thing her husband ever did for her. But it permits Ginsberg (and all would-be writer-revolutionaries) a freedom beyond family, friends, morality and the past. And Krokidas’s film is a call to arms to everyone to create and recreate their lives. For those darlings must be killed.
Kill Your Darlings is released on 6th December 2013 in the UK