First time feature director John Krokidas brings the Beat Generation to the screen with Kill Your Darlings, an energetic period piece following Allen Ginsberg’s first year at Columbia as he befriends famous writers Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs through Lucien Carr, a peer he meets in college. Krokidas brings with him a veritable who’s who in young and upcoming Hollywood to bring the Beats to life, tapping Daniel Radcliffe to carry the proceedings as Ginsberg, with Jack Huston’s Kerouac and Ben Foster’s Burroughs providing support. Rounding out the cast are Dane DeHaan’s Carr, and Elizabeth Olsen as Edie Parker, as well as Michael C. Hall, David Cross and Jennifer Jason Leigh. The anchor of the story (also forming a minor framing device) is the true life killing of David Kammerer (Hall), who had a tumultuous relationship with the Beats and Carr in particular, but the actual focus of the vast majority of the film’s 105 minutes is a coming-of-age sexual awakening tale as Ginsberg’s blossoming is framed by the foundation of the Beats.
Radcliffe’s Ginsberg is a decent center for the film; there are times that he comes off a little overly stereotypical in his Brooklyn Jewish upbringing (the opening scenes prior to his move to Columbia are a bit on the cliche end of the spectrum). His strained relationship with his parents (Cross and Leigh) provide the context of the pressures he faces from a mentally ill mother and distant father. Ginsberg wants to live the life of a boy in his late teens striving to do more with his life, but is continually hamstrung by his home life. Both Radcliffe and the film open wide as the setting shifts to Columbia University and other young actors begin to populate the screen. Jack Huston brings a natural charisma to the Kerouac role, neatly inhabiting a man with a past who does what he can to contribute to this emerging new worldview while keeping that aloof air of cool. Elizabeth Olsen unfortunately has much less to work with; the Edie Parker role is generally reduced to appearing as a nag. Her motivations and perspectives may be logical, but the film is clearly planted in the corner of the Beats, making her attempts to corral Kerouac into a more traditional marriage come off unfairly as a negative influence.
Ben Foster’s Burroughs is deliciously on the other side of the spectrum, and has quite the memorable reveal, lounging in a bathtub with a nitrous oxide mask that looks like some sort of medieval torture device. He spends much of the film in a severe suit, drugged out and raving in a convincing gravelly drawl. Burroughs factors least into the story both from a plotting and screen time perspective, but he makes the most of his meager time. It’s a gimmicky performance, but remains memorable as Fosters knows enough not to cross the line over to parody. Somewhere in the middle of all of this madness is Dane DeHaan, whose Lucien Carr is the catalyst for essentially all of the actions once he arrives on the scene. Carr is also easily the most complex character on screen; his past with Kammerer is not fully revealed until late in the game, but the way DeHaan plays the scenes gives you everything you need to know. DeHaan continues to prove himself as one of the most exciting young forces on the screen today. His work is of a piece with what we’ve already seen from him in films like Chronicle and The Place Beyond the Pines, but piles on the emotion and internal strife in what should continue to build his career as the future of Hollywood.
Even though it is the focus of much of the Kill Your Darlings‘ marketing, the actual murder plot that serves as the climax of the film (and one of the many meanings behind the appropriation of the Faulkner quote for the film’s title) is a bit of a letdown. It works mostly because DeHaan makes it work, but its affect on Ginsberg doesn’t work as well as other aspects of the movie. Indeed, as the core four of the group begin to drift apart in the latter third, the film loses quite a bit of its energy. The script also has some difficulty selling the foundation of the Beats, as much of the focus on their literary revolution does not particularly involve writing much (though this does become a plot point later in the film), and we never see the Beats fully blossom, as their major works we know today are all written after the movie ends (as a side note, we don’t really need end title cards to explain that Ginsberg, Burroughs and Kerouac went on to write Howl, Naked Lunch and On the Road. That felt off). But luckily, the majority of the film is just as much focused on Ginsberg’s coming-of-age, especially as he tries to come to terms with the sexual politics of the time and his own confused and muddled understanding of just who he loves and how he expresses that. The strength of the acting, especially DeHaan, as well as the fascinating portrayal of sexual awakening, wins out in the end, making Kill Your Darlings a rewarding, if a tad uneven, film experience.