It is notoriously difficult to create films about poetry and writing. Such a cerebral art form is tough to reproduce in a visual format without going fully pretentious and having the characters spout ridiculous, unrealistic lines of dialogue. The visual language of Kill Your Darlings, a film chronicling the early lives of some of the most influential poets of the Beat generation, is almost secondary to the writings themselves. This isn’t a film meant to dazzle with visuals and spectacle. At its best, Kill Your Darlings presents the young poets as they are developing their own rules and limitations for what language can do and discovering who they are in the process. It is a character-driven drama that wants you to feel the motivations of each of its many characters, even if its grander ambitions prove too much for it to handle.
We are first introduced to Allen Ginsberg, played with mature confidence by Daniel Radcliffe. Allen is a young dreamer trapped under the limitations of his household, with his inattentive father (David Cross) and absent-minded mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Allen is delighted to learn that he has been accepted into Columbia University, knowing he can finally be free to express himself. Upon arrival he meets Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), a fellow poet and kindred spirit. Allen becomes enamored with Lucien from first sight. Lucien spouts big ideas of taking down the establishment, doing away with old conventions and promoting openness and free love. Lucien introduces Allen to an underground society of poets, allowing him to meet a colorful cast of characters.
He comes to meet the eccentric William S. Borroughs (Ben Foster), the mysterious David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) and eventually Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) among others. Allen discovers that things are not as they seem with Lucien after learning that David writes Lucien’s papers in exchange for sex. Lucien is not who he seems to be, but Allen becomes more and more infatuated with him, eventually imagining full blown fantasies of the two of them together. We get separate story lines for each of these writers, allowing us a glimpse into their lives, including Lucien’s complicated childhood, Jack’s investment in the war and William’s dependance on drugs.
|Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan & Jack Huston in Kill Your Darlings
Director John Krokidas allows the audience to get invested in these characters as flawed human beings rather than as clearly drawn protagonists and antagonists. Though Allen is ostensibly our hero in the film, the main character we are to root for, he still makes mistakes and says things he shouldn’t. He gives in to peer pressure on several occasions, including vandalizing the library, even if he knows better. But at the end of the day he’s young, he’s in love and he’s finally free. It is smart of Krokidas to give us so many character moments, as opposed to giving us a superficial look at the poetry and the events of the Beat generation, as a lesser film would. At one point, Allen finds himself in a situation where a girl wants to perform oral sex on him and he only allows it to happen if he can look into Lucien’s eyes. Not a word of dialogue or poetry is exchanged but there is great power and emotion in the scene. Moments like these are able to add more layers and complications to an already impressive character study.
It is unfortunate that Kill Your Darlings takes a dramatic left turn near the middle as the story becomes much more plot-driven. One of the characters is murdered and the film becomes much more about the events of the subsequent case as opposed to anything else. While there are still interesting character moments and twists within the final half of the film, the newfound focus turns it into a conventional crime drama. There is a strong montage at the climax that features each of the main characters facing significant moments in their lives, but things seem to peter out shortly after. While the developments may make sense from a storytelling standpoint, they are not dramatically satisfying in a way that I had hoped.
While the ending of the film may ultimately be forgettable, Kill Your Darlings is a film that is successful based on the strength of the performances. Radcliffe, fresh off the worldwide success of the Harry Potter film franchise, is further distancing himself from the role that made him a star. He shows remarkable maturity in this film, using facial expressions and subtlety in a way I’ve never seen him use before. While DeHaan is starting to become typecast as “the troubled kid” in his film roles, his wide-eyed stare and his flirtatious sensibility make Lucien an understandable object of affection for Allen. Foster, Hall and Huston give similarly complex performances and make the most of their sometimes limited screentime. Kill Your Darlings may not be a defining film for the Beat generation, but its strong character work transports you to an era where language was cool and limitations seemed endless.
MVP: Daniel Radcliffe
Best Actor: Daniel Radcliffe
Best Supporting Actor: Dane DeHaan
Best Original Screenplay
Sony Pictures Classics