Two much-ballyhooed historical dramas from this year’s festival circuit arrive in Los Angeles and New York City theaters this week. The first, John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings, is the latest in a recent string of biopics about the revolutionary “Beat” writers of the 1950’s-60’s. One of their number, gay poet Allen Ginsberg, was personified just a few years ago by James Franco in Howl. In Kill Your Darlings, Daniel Radcliffe — yes, Harry Potter himself — portrays a younger, more insecure Ginsberg just starting to come to terms with his homosexuality.
The primary instigator of his coming out process is Lucien Carr (rising star Dane DeHaan, soon to be seen in Franco’s former role as Harry Osborne in The Amazing Spider-Man 2). Self-assured and seductive, Carr takes Ginsberg under his wing during the latter’s first year at Columbia University. Ginsberg becomes increasingly enamored with his new friend, going so far as to fantasize about Carr while he masturbates. Unfortunately, Carr is under the sway of much older and wealthier David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall, late of Dexter), who senses a threat in Ginsberg.
In real life, Kammerer was murdered by Carr but Carr escaped serious punishment by claiming it was an “honor slaying,” i.e. a justified action to protect himself against the advances of a homosexual predator. This little-known legal strategy in New York is the most interesting aspect of Kill Your Darlings, which otherwise turns out to be a disappointingly familiar tale of unrequited gay love albeit with a literary edge (Beat icons William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac also appear courtesy of actors Ben Foster and sexy Jack Huston). Radcliffe and DeHaan are both excellent and share genuine chemistry, with the impressively maturing Radcliffe gaining bonus points for sexually-explicit fearlessness.
As director, Krokidas begins the film promisingly with an intense, attention-grabbing opening and wonderful period detail in the art direction, costumes and music. His screenplay’s similarities to Howl and On the Road become gradually apparent, however, and Krokidas seems to compensate for the story’s familiarity with increasingly over-the-top direction and editing. This reaches its zenith (nadir?) during a four-way penetration scene during which Carr stabs Kammerer, Ginsberg has sex with a man for the first time, Burroughs shoots up, and Kerouac listens to a recording made by a dying soldier friend who recounts how his body was extensively pierced by shrapnel. Two other gay viewers and I gleefully dissected this sequence following the screening we attended. We just couldn’t help ourselves.
The honor-slaying climax of the film, during which Carr essentially revokes his homosexuality (closing cards inform us he would go on to marry a woman), does potently illustrate the plight of gay men in even the most cosmopolitan US cities during the 1940’s and 50’s. Regretfully, Kill Your Darlings’ strong opening and closing don’t provide me quite enough incentive to recommend the film other than to the most ardent fans of Radcliffe and/or the Beat writers.
12 Years a Slave received rapturous responses at both the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals and is being almost-universally anointed as a definite Best Picture contender in this year’s Academy Awards. British director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) takes a typically unblinking, no-holds-barred approach to the enduringly uncomfortable subject of slavery in the United States. So horrific and unrelenting are some scenes of torture in his new film that I am tempted to compare it to the season premiere of TV’s American Horror Story, which is similarly set for the most part in Louisiana.
Adapted from Solomon Northup’s 1853 book of the same title by screenwriter John Ridley (Three Kings, Red Tails), the film relates Northup’s own personal experience of being kidnapped as a free man in 1841 Washington, DC and being sold into more than a decade of Southern slavery without any recourse. Northup suffered under three diverse plantation owners (only two are depicted in the movie), each seemingly more brutal in their treatment of their slaves than the one before. The married father of two children was eventually freed through the intervention of a Canadian abolitionist, to whom Northup had a providential opportunity to tell his story. He subsequently pursued legal channels to punish his kidnappers but to no avail. Northup was able, though, to write a graphic (for the time) indictment of the slavery system and became renowned as a leader in the abolitionist movement before he virtually disappeared from history.
Fortunately, Northup is unknown no more thanks to McQueen, Ridley and producer Brad Pitt, who also appears briefly in the film as Northup’s savior. Laurels must also be laid at the feet of lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. Best known in GLBT circles for his turn as statuesque drag queen Lola in the original Kinky Boots movie, Ejiofor employs here a powerful combination of stunned resignation, abject humility, righteous indignation and graceful dignity, with more than a few nuances for good measure. His performance is also guaranteed an Oscar nomination.
The impressive “name” supporting cast in addition to Pitt includes prolific man of the moment Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender (who last worked with McQueen on the memorably full-frontal Shame), Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Alfre Woodard (sly as a slave turned plantation owner’s wife), Any Day Now’s Garret Dillahunt and out actress Sarah Paulson. Among the lesser-known actors, Lupita Nyong’o and Adepero Oduye are stunning as the most victimized of the female slaves, and both Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry from last year’s award-winning Beasts of the Southern Wild make cameos.
As much as I consider 12 Years a Slave a masterful achievement and a must-see for adults, I also feel an obligation to caution potential viewers about its bleak tone and discomfiting violence. The abundance of well-liked white actors in unsavory roles and using the “N” word prodigiously is also unnerving. This movie is undeniably strong stuff that illustrates all too well how our slave history remains the most American horror story of all.
A plethora of GLBT-interest documentaries is hitting LA this weekend, and all are deserving of attention... with one notable exception. God Loves Uganda is Roger Ross Williams’ disturbing exposé of how evangelical Christians from the US have infiltrated the African nation and stirred up intense, even life-threatening, homophobia in the name of Jesus. While not as powerful as the recent Call Me Kuchu, with whom it shares several commentators, this is a valuable companion piece. Two: The Story of Roman & Nyro, meanwhile, details a more joyful 12-year journey than 12 Years a Slave: the one undertaken by Grammy-winning songwriter Desmond Child and his partner Curtis Shaw, to have children. The doc captures well (if in sometimes blandly straightforward fashion) the hopes, frustrations, sacrifices and ultimate success they experienced.
Dr. Jennifer Conrad’s The Paw Project serves as an insightful but one-sided and somewhat overwrought indictment of the growing practice of cat-declawing. I am a cat owner myself and know many others (some of whose cats have been declawed) and I’ve yet to see first-hand any of the painful, negative effects the cats shown in the film have sadly experienced. Feel free to watch and decide for yourselves. My strongest reservation among these new releases is in regard to Bridegroom, which was directed by TV queen Linda Bloodworth Thomason. Inspired by the tragic early death of a young gay man and his boyfriend’s failed effort to be recognized by the man’s conservative family, the doc has been popular on this year’s GLBT film fest circuit and will soon receive a national television broadcast (on OWN on Sunday, October 27). I am in the minority — though not alone — in considering it monotonous, self-serving and downright mawkish. True, no one should have to go through what Shane Bitney Crone has gone through to keep his late potential husband’s memory alive… but no one should have to watch it in such excruciating detail either.
Kill Your Darlings: C+
12 Years a Slave: A-
God Loves Uganda: B+
Two: The Story of Roman & Nyro: B
The Paw Project: B-
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.