Kill Your Darlings (2013) is a fascinating and entertaining, but ultimately flawed film that details one of the incidents in the life of William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster, Alpha Dog) that Burroughsphiles like myself find incredibly intriguing — the murder, by nineteen year-old Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan, Chronicle), of his thirty-three year-old stalker David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall, Dexter). It was an incident that prefigured Burroughs’s own murder of his wife, Joan, just over seven years later, and inspired the only collaboration between Burroughs and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston, Boardwalk Empire), “And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks,” a work that was not released to the world until sixty-four years after the murder.
Note that Burroughs comes up in connection to this tale multiple times, and he is a character in the movie. However, he is sadly under-utilized, and the story instead focuses on Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe, Harry Potter series) and his relationship to Lucien Carr. Now this is where the film might bother you if you’re an aficionado of the players involved. If you don’t know, it probably won’t matter, but it plays fast and loose with the relationship between Ginsberg and Carr — as in it creates one that isn’t really supported by history. The filmmakers chose to make Carr’s sexuality ambiguous and, in fact (minor spoiler alert) there are two romantic moments between Ginsberg and Carr, one imagined and the other real, although abruptly interrupted. The mere idea that Carr might have been a closeted homosexual or even toying with bisexuality not only defies reality, it undercuts the Act III issue in the film.
Ginsberg is ultimately tasked with writing Carr’s deposition, continuing the motif of willing plagiarism perpetrated by Carr and his stalker, although it’s never clear who initiated that deal. And, as is amply explained in the film, if Carr is heterosexual, then his murder of a known homosexual is considered an “honor” killing, so not penalized. However, if Carr is even a wee bit homosexual, the charge would be first degree murder.
That much is historically true, but, if anything, Lucien was a world-class cock-tease and never a cocksucker. The film also really downplays the creepiness of his stalker. Yes, we do see an unfortunate incident with Kammerer and Kerouac’s cat, but what we never learn is that David started stalking Lucien when the boy was fourteen, and he had a habit of breaking in to Lucien’s bedroom to just watch him sleep. Kammerer was the ultimate creeper and yet, despite casting serial killer Dexter in the role, there are very few moments when he is truly creepy. This is because the filmmakers chose to depict Lucien as enabling and encouraging the relationship until it becomes inconvenient for him to do so anymore.
It’s a shame, because there’s so much about this movie to love. Most of the performances are stellar, with Hall a stand-out as Kammerer and Foster nailing the very rare dead-on Burroughs performance (something that Peter Weller and Kiefer Sutherland failed miserably at) and with an uncanny physical resemblance to the grandfather of the Beats. Also amazing are David Cross (Arrested Development) as Ginsberg’s father (and, as the closing credits prove, a fucking dead ringer for Ginzy himself) and the always, always fantastic Jennifer Jason Leigh (eXistenZ, and so much more) as Ginsberg’s schizophrenic, deeply troubled mother Naomi — she the subject of his most famous poem, “Howl.”
The real breakout, though, is 26 year-old Dane DeHaan, who seems to be channeling a young Leonardo DiCaprio. If this kid is half as smart in his choice of movies as Leo has been, expect to see him top of the list of most respected actors of 2033.
All of the characters in the movie are dead-on with two exceptions. One is Huston’s Kerouac, although this may have been a failing on the part of the director. Kerouac has been played by at least seventeen actors in the past (if you count 2012’s On the Road), and none of them have nailed it. The major fail is usually that everyone forgets that he was Quebecois, so would not have had any kind of American accent. The dude spoke Quebecois French fluently; that was his mother’s tongue.
(Same pet peeve goes for screen depictions of Queen Victoria. Hey, gang — she had a frickin’ German accent. When do we get to see that?)
The other fail in characterization, although not in accent, is Radcliffe’s Ginsberg, who comes across as nothing more than a Jersey version of Harry Potter, complete with loss of parents at least in metaphor if not in reality.
I really have to wonder, though, how much of that feeling is inertia of franchise, and I find Mickey Rooney to be a good comparison. It took him forever to grow beyond the whole Andy Hardy image, which he was stuck with for 21 years — from the age of 17 all the way up to 38. Perhaps Radcliffe was lucky in that the Harry Potter series played out in only 10 years, and he managed to trot out his bits in a stage production of Equus long before the last three movies were made. Also, he doesn’t seem to have any part in JK Rowling’s reboot/sequel. Still, the only thing I could think when he displayed his not at all un-cute butt for a moment of simulated sodomy was, “Harry, wouldn’t you really rather be doing that for Ron?” Expectero Bonerus, anyone?
But that’s neither here nor there. The real failing of Kill Your Darlings, to me, was that it elevated Ginsberg to a position he didn’t really have among the Beats, and it used him as the focal point of a story in which he wasn’t really involved. Carr, Kammerer, Burroughs, or Kerouac would have been much more interesting focal points.
Especially given the Oscar-worthy performances of Foster and DeHaan. Even though DeHaan’s character was a lie it was still incredible. Meanwhile, Foster’s Burroughs was a revelation.
In another universe, this film would have been about Burroughs and how Carr killing Kammerer affected him. Too bad that, in this universe, we get a mish-mosh about how neurotic Ginsberg is upset that he couldn’t nail a straight boy. This stereotype is the biggest thing that’s holding back queer cinema today. How sad that this movie should buy right into it.