A large number of writers have been credited with the phrase “kill all your darlings.” I had always thought it was Dorothy Parker, and the Internet claims it is William Faulkner or Stephen King. A recent Slate article places its origin as a writing guide from 1913. Whoever said it first, it’s been a key piece of advice for writers for decades. Get rid of your most precious, pretentious, silly, extravagant passages, sentences, and scenes. Kill them, your darlings. In Kill Your Darlings, John Krokidas and Austin Bunn’s wonderful film about the beginnings of the Beats, it is spoken by an English professor with the usual purpose, but it also means a great deal more. It is also about getting rid of your personal pretensions, petty moralities, tradition, constraints, and fears. And actual murder. One of the first scenes in the film is Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) holding the dying body of David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), who Carr had called his guardian angel and who had been stalking him for years and who Carr stabbed before sinking him into the Hudson River.
The rest of the film is the story of what leads up to this moment, and it heavily centers on Alan Ginsberg’s relationship with Carr, and with their friendships with Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. This is in 1944 and 1945, before Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) became one of the great poets of the 20th century, Kerouac (Jack Huston) wrote On the Road and inspired a hundred million hipsters, and Burroughs (Ben Foster) wrote Naked Lunch and killed his wife. As a nervous freshman at Columbia, Ginsberg meets the irascible, incandescent, and brilliant Carr, who takes him to Greenwich Village and introduces him to Burroughs, Kammerer, to other writers, artists, drunks, and to drugs. Ginsberg falls in love with Lucien, whose sexuality is not entirely clear. Lucien’s ecstatic interest in the possibility of a new art movement draws Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg together.
They get wasted and expand their minds and develop the ethos that would define the Beats. Meanwhile, Ginsberg’s mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is institutionalized, Kerouac fights with his girlfriend, and Kammerer becomes increasingly unhinged. As nonfiction films go, Kill Your Darlings is rather nonfictional; Krokidas and Bunn only make a few changes to history for dramatic purposes. That it’s this authentic makes the story all the more amazing. Famous people meet other famous people because they’re famous, but rarely do literary titans become friends before any of them had published a word, and they usually don’t do it in the midst of a gay stalker murder.
Krokidas and Bunn’s screenplay, based on Bunn’s story, does the Beats justice by featuring lyrical, kinetic, and occasionally very funny dialogue and by not over-praising figures who have been lionized by readers for sixty years. These are deeply flawed men, and not just Carr. Krokidas directs the formal scenes with precision and clarity, and when he is innovative, depicting the creative thought processes or drug-induced imaginations, he succeeds. I think they tried to do too much with the film, both thematically and narratively, but that’s a minor problem that may have more to do with telling the story of extraordinarily interesting people and only have two hours to do it.
They are helped immensely by a rather extraordinary ensemble. Daniel Radcliffe has shed the Harry Potter skin completely with this very brave turn as Ginsberg; he may not look anything like the poet, but he plays the nervous, needy charm impeccably and delightfully. DeHaan’s Carr is intense and unnerving, and while he seems to do much the same thing in every role (from Chronicle to The Place Beyond the Pines), he does it very, very well. Hall is both menacing and sympathetic, and Foster make a too-small role loom large in my memory with mannered, nearly hammy line readings. I’m glad no editor decided to kill that darling.
Kill Your Darlings
Directed by John Krokidas
Written by John Krokidas and Austin Bunn
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Michael C. Hall