With his debut feature Kill Your Darlings (2013), premièred at the Venice Film Festival in the Venice Days sidebar, John Krokidas has assembled a stellar cast to tell his story of the Beat poets at school, with former Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe taking the lead role as the young Allen Ginsberg and Chronicle’s Dane DeHaan as friend and future dedicate of Howl and the Other Poems, Lucien Carr. When an aspiring Ginsberg gets into Columbia University, he looks forward to his advancement and immersion in the world of learning, far from his mentally-ill mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and his poet father (David Cross).
Once there, Ginsberg discovers a sleepy pile where literature is taught according to traditional formula and prejudice slouches, and where imagination is stifled. Luckily, new exciting friend Lucien is on-hand to recruit him into formulating a ‘new vision’ of art and the promotion a life of hedonism, freedom and sexual-awakening. However, lurking in the shadows is an old lover, David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), and Allen’s obsession linked with Lucien’s unstable behaviour will end in murder and disaster. The tough job of making Jack Kerouac anything other than annoying goes to Jack Houston, and he half-succeeds in his toils, whilst journeyman US actor Ben Foster is (once again) brilliant as Naked Lunch scribe William S. Burroughs.
Hollywood’s recent love affair with the period – following the flat footed On the Road (2012) – continues undeterred. The pre-Beat icons chain-smoke, drink profusely, take drugs and have sex almost robotically (and, they write stuff occasionally). It’s proved difficult to pull off the Beat phenomenon cinematically, and Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings is no exception. There are (naturally) the party scenes, where people have wild fun and spout specious guff; and the jazz club scene; and the writing scene. The film has two of the latter, in fact: in one, inspired by Burroughs’ idea of automatic writing, they Beat poets make a collage. In another, Radcliffe’ Ginsberg types as if he’s playing the piano.
Kill Your Darlings’ problems, however, go deeper than the repeating of tired clichés. Post-Potter, Radcliffe is to be applauded for branching out into a myriad of different roles; yet his range is narrow, and the film suffers as a consequence. Also, Krokidas’ debut feels caught in an ambivalence in terms of its central story. As with Ginsberg himself, the film doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with the crucial figure of Kammerer. The subsequent crime against the aforementioned threatens to wreck not only Ginsberg’s life, but also that of Burroughs and Kerouac, but nevertheless becomes a formative experience; a footnote, a biographical glitch – and in Krokidas’ retelling something vital is lost.
The 70th Venice Film Festival takes place from 28 August to 7 September, 2013. For more of our Venice 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.