To “kill your darlings” is to take every literary device one holds dear and throw it into the metaphorical shredder, to free oneself from what binds us creatively. The exploits of the literary icons known affectionately as the Beat Generation have always been a source of wonderment and examination, but they seem to have gained renewed attention of late, with Kristen Stewart starring in On the Road, and the other Sundance entry, Big Sur. Kill Your Darlings, directed by John Krokidas, seeks to explore one of the darkest moments in the formation of the Beats, and in the process tear down some of their luster.
Daniel Radcliffe sheds the boyish Harry Potter persona definitively as famed poet Allen Ginsberg, who in 1943 sets his sights on a world beyond New Jersey, where his famous father Lou (David Cross) and mentally disturbed mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) seek to keep him in place. Accepted into Columbia University, where upholding tradition is all that matters, Ginsberg endures the casual anti-Semitism and homophobia while attempting to expand his horizons.
His world is forever changed when his refined poetic tastes draw the attention of Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), a mysterious and seductive sophomore intent on questioning conventions in all its myriad forms. “Life is only interesting when life is wide”. Carr takes Ginsberg under his wing, and along with fellow literary giants William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), their world is consumed with booze, drugs, jazz, sex, and spitting in the face of tradition.
Carr’s magnetism comes with a price, and that price is the constant presence of David Kemmerer (Michael C. Hall), his ex-mentor and lover who maintains a possessive and obsessive hold. When Ginsberg is introduced into the group, what develops is an icy sort of love triangle where Carr is the master manipulator. The genesis of their revolt against the status quo, Carr is no leader, he’s a user. Kammerer does all of his college papers in a desperate bid to keep him, while Ginsberg is taken on as a protégé essentially to do the same.
While this is ostensibly a murder mystery, surrounding the 1944 killing of Kammerer at Carr’s hand, that’s the least interesting aspect of the film by far. Krokidas gives a lurid recounting of the Beats’ formation, from their passionate arguments over Whitman and Yates, to their pranks and failed attempts at committing suicide. They lived in their own insular world, and Krokidas sees it as a stylish fantasy land where everything bends to their considerable will.
As a narrative, Krokidas finds much of the same stirring passion that inspired his subjects, but the script does get repetitive and familiar in a Dead Poets Society sort of way. The blusterous monologuing about taking on the system via the power of the written word is effective only so long, and Krokidas doesn’t always look deep enough to find the impetus for their intensity.
DeHaan and Radcliffe are brilliant in two very tough roles, playing famous people in a way most of us are unfamiliar with. Radcliffe perfectly characterizes Ginsberg’s awkward homosexuality, while DeHaan is a cool and charismatic customer one can see inspiring others. Some may be shocked by Radcliffe’s rather crude gay sex scenes, and yes he and DeHaan make out at one point, but he’s been pushing these boundaries comfortably for a while now. Huston is excellent as the “warrior poet” Kerouac, at a point in his life where he too was just coming into his own.
It’s hard not to compare Kill Your Darlings with On the Road, and both have their merits. Shot for a fraction of the budget and with a less notable cast, it’s Krokidas’ film that pumps the most life into the history of the Beat Generation. Even if it’s not as revelatory or insightful as one might hope, it’s still a compelling tale of the influences that shaped our most consequential writers of the 20th century.
NOTE: This is a reprint of my review from the Sundance Film Festival.