In 1944, when Columbia University student Lucien Carr fatally stabbed a gay man named David Kammerer before dumping his corpse into the Hudson River, he called upon a scholarly school mate to help him craft his defense. And by framing his crime as an “honor killing,” where murdering homosexuals and other so-called miscreants was deemed a justifiable act, Carr was able to plea down to first-degree manslaughter and serve just two years. Never mind the fact that Carr and Kammerer were consensual lovers. And never mind the fact that the friend who helped him, was 18-year old future legendary Beat poet Allen Ginsberg—a homosexual in his own right, who crushed so hard on his golden-haired friend, he would later dedicate his iconic novel Howl to him.
In Sony Pictures Classics’ Kill Your Darlings, this true tale of murderous woe is elegantly told by director John Krokidas and co-writer Austin Bunn. Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan and Michael C. Hall, Krokidas and Bunn relentlessly nurtured this project to fruition since they met as college roommates over a decade ago.
“The fact that in 1944 you could literally get away with murder by portraying your victim as a homosexual, pissed me off to no end and kept me up at night,” says Krokidas. “That’s why I had to tell this story.”
But beyond Kammerer’s murder, Kill Your Darlings mostly centers on young Ginsberg, portrayed with introverted restraint by Radcliffe, in his first American role. With a perfectly clipped New Jersey accent, and hair permed into an adorably wavy 40’s Jew-fro, we see Radcliffe’s inauspicious suburban beginnings, until an acceptance letter arrives in the mail, triggering a journey into self discovery that only New York college life can bring—both inside and outside the halls of academia.
It’s not long before Ginsberg meets cocky upper-classman Carr (Dane DeHaan), who takes an instant shine to the newbie—partially because of the charge he gets from the tacit sexual stronghold he clearly holds over the wide-eyed freshman; partially because Ginsberg is a new audience for Carr’s often-pretentious literary ramblings. In any case, Carr soon shepherds Ginsberg through the New York art scene–teeming with future literary greats like Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs—both barely past adolescence themselves.
Whether engaged in late-night drug-fueled debates about all things existential, or whether riding the downtown train to Greenwich Village jazz clubs, where they knock back shots, chain smoke cigarettes, and bop to the music, Ginsberg and pals are constantly hatching plans to change the world through prose. Calling their movement “The New Vision”, they truly believe they have the power to buck tradition with words. Any why shouldn’t they? An open road of possibility stretches out before them, and we’re there with them, riding shotgun.
“I wanted the audience to leave with that feeling you get when you’re 18 and 19 years old, and everything seemed possible, and you knew you had something important to say that was different or unique. Not just what your parents taught you and not just what school taught you,” says screenwriter Bunn. “You wanted to leave your mark on the world, and the fact that these guys actually did it and created the greatest countercultural movement in the twentieth century is amazing.”
In one memorable scene, the gang of literary rebels—with flashlights in hand, breaks into the university library at night, to swap the stoic classics from the glass display case with titles from the restricted area, such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Ulysses, the Kama Sutra and even some pornographic illustrations. That their antics are both whimsical and profound reflects the duality of Kill Your Darlings on a more global level.
Because while Ginsberg and friends are buoyant with abandon, rumblings of trouble are never far away–nor is Carr’s on-again-off-again lover Kammerer. Played with just the right creepy intensity by Hall (TV’s Dexter), Kammerer pens Carr’s college essays in exchange for the young man’s attention. And although Ginsberg casts a disapproving eye toward this arrangement, it’s not long before Ginsberg himself inherits that literary task, after Carr breaks it off with Kammerer for good. Evidently, integrity is easier in theory than in practice—especially when matters of the heart so thoroughly complicate things. Of course, so can being a homosexual in the 1940s. And if it seems implausible that Ginsberg would help Carr get off with the honor killing defense, in murdering a fellow homosexual, this paradox is precisely what drew Bunn to this story.
“I loved Allen Ginsberg for his openness and his honesty, and to think he was called upon to defend his best friend in an honor slaying of a known homosexual—the very thing Ginsberg went on in his life to defy–that contradiction of being in the closet and the shame around that issue was really exciting,” Bunn explains.
Destined to have a rich post-Potter film career, Radcliffe felt the same way. “Reading Allen’s teenage diaries and combining that with the character I saw in the script, I found him very likable immediately,” says Radcliffe. “His immense inner confidence didn’t marry up with what he presented to the world at the time. That difference between his inner self and outer shyness was interesting to me.”
In the end, maybe the takeaway from Kill Your Darlings is that creating true cultural change through artistic expression is inherently paradoxical, because the same hypersensitivity that allows artists to envision more evolved solutions to life’s questions, can also render the artist vulnerable to point of insecurity. Yet their impact is undeniable.
“We’re still feeling the ripple effects of the cultural revolution the Beats started,” avers Hall. “The fascination with their work coincides with a period when you were coming into awareness of the conventions that constrain you, and your appetite to transcend them.”