Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Sensualist: Kill Your Darlings

Dane DeHaan & Daniel Radcliffe in Kill Your Darlings
In Kill Your Darlings, John Krokidas’ feature film debut, Daniel Radcliffe plays the young Allen Ginsberg, whose friendship with the charismatic daredevil Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) during his first year at Columbia University represents his artistic and sexual coming-of-age. Krokidas, who also co-wrote the screenplay with first-timer Austin Bunn, has taken the true story of Lucien Carr’s role in the formation of the New York City Beat Generation – he was a sort of ringleader and muse for Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs – and his grisly murder of his gay stalker David Kammerer, and refracted it all through Ginsberg’s perspective. Krokidas doesn’t have the directorial chops to make this movie work. It meanders and drifts, coming in and out of focus, and its glazed druggy-jazzy set pieces are pandering and heavy-handed. (The structural problems also come from the script.) And visually, it’s a poky little production, awkwardly pasted together – you don’t have to be a technical expert to see it. The difference between Kill Your Darlings and a run-of-the-mill bad movie from a freshman director is that Krokidas has really interesting ideas; he just doesn’t know how to execute them yet. But Daniel Radcliffe does: his performance, which is crystal clear in every scene, gets to the emotional core of what Krokidas as a writer-director can’t express. He keeps you watching.

Radcliffe made his name as a movie star with the Harry Potter movies, but on screen he doesn’t have a movie star’s outsize charisma – his gifts lie elsewhere. Playing a grieving widower in The Woman in Black (2012), a gorgeous Edwardian haunted house mystery, he brought the emotional control and almost super-sensory physical expressiveness silent movie actors used to marshal for their roles, yet he quietly underplayed every scene. When he interacted with the terrifying ghost of a recent suicide, he showed the tentative, dreamlike curiosity of a man who is already haunted; he’s no longer capable of feeling horror. And it was those same skills that made Radcliffe laugh-out-loud funny in the British TV series A Young Doctor’s Notebook (2012-13) – he plays the titular young doctor in a Russian backwater village who is always getting into Buster Keaton snarls. He has terrific comic timing, but unlike his scenery-chewing co-star Jon Hamm he’s incapable of hogging the screen – he disappears into it. That’s the quality he brings both to comedy and to drama, and you see it most spectacularly in Kill Your Darlings. Radcliffe is so attuned to the overall mood of a scene that he makes us take in more, not less, of what is going on around him. He plays Allen Ginsberg as a variation on Nick Carraway. When he reacts to something he opens it up to us: his acting is a form of narration.

The movie opens in New Jersey in 1943, the night Ginsberg receives his acceptance to Columbia University: the camera scans his small house, in which his father (David Cross), a poet, is the embodiment of patriarchal order and his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) a paranoid-schizophrenic whose meltdowns can only be soothed by her sensitive son. When Allen shows up at Columbia, he immediately responds to the older student Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), who stages a guerrilla reading of an erotic passage from Henry Miller during a freshman library orientation – the movie unfolds the growing love between them as they become inseparable friends, and it tracks the emergence of a new bohemian aesthetics of sensation fuelled by drugs, jazz and sex. The movie is strongest in these early scenes of discovery and experimentation, which feature a creepily convincing portrait of Bill Burroughs by Ben Foster, in spite of the director’s irritating tendency to convey Allen’s drug-scrambled consciousness by slowing down or speeding up the soundtrack, or by playing scenes backwards – the artistic equivalent of VCR rewinding or fast-forwarding. It’s when Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) shows up and the plot line involving David Kammerer, played by the wet blanket Michael C. Hall, takes over that the movie completely dissipates. The story expands to cover Kerouac’s domestic life with Edie Parker (an anodyne Elizabeth Olsen), but it loses the dramatic focus of the Allen-Lucien relationship. And the movie can’t make up its mind about Kammerer. Is he a sad-sack loser, this former professor of English who follows Lucien cross-country from school to school, or a nefarious stalker? Is he beguiled by Lucien’s sociopathic charm, or vice versa? I think these questions are supposed to be dramatic and resonant, but they have no tension or shape – they’re just confusing.

Dane DeHaan as Lucien Carr in Kill Your Darlings 

Dane DeHaan, the young actor who gave such an extraordinary performance as Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes’ son in The Place Beyond the Pines last year, is ideal casting for the disturbed, manic Lucien, but he suffers from this lack of direction. In Pines, he showed that raw, wiry energy and emotional grit that make Gosling one of the best actors of his generation. It’s not that he’s bad in Kill Your Darlings, but he stays on the surface of his character, as though he hasn’t made clear decisions about his motivations - the performance feels vague, billowy. Radcliffe stays specific. From the first shot of him dancing with a broom to radio jazz in his childhood home and snapping to attention as his father walks into the room, he creates a portrait of the artist as a young sensualist divided by his parent’s demands: his father’s order and his mother’s chaos. Allen identifies with his mother and her fits and anguish, and he’s her protector when the father wants to lock her up in an institution. She may be mad, but she can’t hide her feelings – in that way, Allen thinks, she’s freer than most everyone else. This opening scene is brief, and David Cross is so ridiculously cast as the austere, imposing father threatened by his son’s confederacy with the mother, but Radcliffe stays with the revelations it gives into his character. This is an Oedipal love story. You see that Allen falls in love with Lucien because, mad and free, he’s like his mother. His poetry and his homosexuality both come from a desire to overthrow the father. He wants to unlock the prison of patriarchal order his mother is confined to. He wants to let the mad run wild.

This premise is daring and original, especially the link between the non-traditional, iconoclastic writing the Beats produced and their homoerotic web of relationships. And by focusing on Lucien Carr, a young man so conflicted about his own sexuality he attracts men platonically only to humiliate them when they express their love, as the visionary behind the movement, the movie shows an ambiguous line between liberation and repression. But at the end of the day the picture is so blundered and misshapen these ideas don’t have room to breathe and grow. Part of the problem is that Krokidas doesn’t have much of an instinct for tone, especially for levity. A pivotal scene in which the Beats – Allen, Lucien, Kerouac and Burroughs – break into the restricted section of the Columbia University Library and switch out the Shakespeare folios in the reading room display cases for Ulysses and Tropic of Cancer should express the exuberance and impudence of these young artists. It should be comic. But it turns into a deadly serious chase sequence, with police swarming the dark library and the men try to escape, and it goes on forever. The dramatic tension is so bloated that the scene is no fun to watch at all. And it should be: this is the kind of inspired artistic prank that makes these characters sympathetic in the first place. The movie starts to bludgeon you with its faux-gravity. The title of the film comes from a piece of advice often quoted in creative writing classrooms: “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” As both writer and director, John Krokidas fails to do precisely this. 

– Amanda Shubert writes about film, books and the visual arts. A founding editor of Full Stop, the online magazine of literature and culture, she is also a contributor to the forthcoming anthology Talking About Pauline Kael (Scarecrow Press, 2014). Most recently, she interviewed the actress and folk singer Ronee Blakley for The Rumpus.

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