A movie of meter and murder

Sony Pictures Classics/Courtesy

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Sex, drugs, jazz, poetry and death. Drenched in sepia tones, they weave together to form the prologue to one of the greatest stories in American literary history: the Beat Movement. Director and co-writer John Krokidas sends us a postcard from another era with his debut film, “Kill Your Darlings,” a provocative and entrancing look at the early years of the Beat Generation, when Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William Burroughs (Ben Foster) met at Columbia University in the 1940s.

Before “Howl” became a controversial classic and back when the rules of rhyme and verse still applied, Allen Ginsberg met Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), a charismatic, smoldering ferryman to an underground world of sensuality, love and poetry. “Kill Your Darlings” explores this world as Ginsberg must have for the first time as a college freshman. He falls in love, he wears nice sweaters, he takes drugs and then he freezes time at a jazz club.

“I call it ‘Dead Poets Society’ with a punk rock twist,” Krokidas said to The Daily Californian.

“It’s really about being 18 or 19 and falling in love for the first time, going to your first cool party and feeling awkward in the corner, finding that group where you fit in for the first time and then the huge emotional event that causes you to really form your inner confidence and find your own voice,” Krokidas continued. “Ours is much more of a coming-of-age tale, a story of love, passion and murder.”

The murder in question is based on a real-life event that made national headlines in 1944. The film starts with Lucien already behind bars for the stabbing and drowning of his older lover, David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), and then cuts back to narrate the buildup. Krokidas and co-writer Austin Bunn extensively researched the murder as well as the relationships between the members of the group in order to make the film as authentic and true to the Beat poets as possible.

“We went to the actual site where the murder happened to look and see how he could have possibly dragged the body to the river,” Krokidas said. Jokingly, he added, “We had to pray to the art gods first to get permission to put words in the mouths of three of (Bunn’s) and my favorite authors and some of the greatest American legends of all time. At the same time, what was great about the research was that we found in Allen Ginsberg’s journals … the conversations that they had, between him and Lucien … he had actually written them all down.”

What makes the film so compelling, however, is not its authenticity but its relatability. “Kill Your Darlings” does not treat its characters as legends in the making but as eager young men on the cusp of adulthood. While the film’s heavy dose of nostalgia caters to a distinctly hipster (“angel-headed” or otherwise) aesthetic, the message is more about moving forward and creating something distinctly new.

“I actually made this movie for college students and for people under the age of 25,” Krokidas said. “I want Beat fans to appreciate it for sure, but, you know, I think what I really connected to and what I wanted to get across was that feeling when you’re in college and you want to do something unique with your life that’s different from what your parents are teaching you, that’s different from what school is teaching you.

“You actually want to make a difference and say something. The great thing about the movie is that after the story is done, these guys actually did it.”

Grace Lovio covers film. Contact her at [email protected].