Sex, poetry and murder fuel kinetic but overwrought ‘Kill Your Darlings’
Rookie director John Krokidas knows how to get a party started. The opening moments of his feature debut, Kill Your Darlings, are a kaleidoscope of bloodstained death, a volatile confrontation through prison bars between two attractive, very young men in extreme close-up, and a barrage of spoken poetry. Viewers who may have been expecting a well-behaved, intellectual period drama about the birth of the Beat movement in the mid-1940s have no idea what’s going on, but we’re suddenly primed to find out.
Written by Krokidas and Austin Bunn, Kill Your Darlings is a jazzy, kinetic attempt to not only to tell the story of the early Beats, but to replicate the psychotropic fervor of youth caught in the act of exploding old cultural norms and powering through to a new way of thinking. Like its youthful protagonists, the film can often be pretentious, self-conscious, and in love with its own audacity. But sometimes, Krokidas finds the vein of urgency—in his simmering brew of drugs, forbidden sex, longing, and, ultimately, violence—that drives each new generation to create itself.
The film is built around a real-life murder scandal in which college freshman Allen Ginsberg and his circle were involved at Columbia University in 1944. Krokidas’ story begins the year before, with tentative young Allen (Daniel Radcliffe) getting ready to leave his mild-mannered schoolteacher and part-time poet father (David Cross), and his needy, mentally fragile mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
Failing to bond with a jock roommate at Columbia who makes casual jokes bout Jews and “fairies,” Allen is drawn moth-like to incandescent, blond, worldly Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), down the hall. “Lu” takes him to off-campus parties in the Christopher Street neighborhood that feature black jazz musicians and oceans of recreational drugs supplied by bohemian trust-fund baby, “Willie” Burroughs. As played by Ben Foster, Burroughs’ droll observations and pinched, nasal delivery are a highlight of the film. (“Contrary to report, prison is not a tonic for the spirit,” he deadpans.)
Amped up on coffee, cigarettes, and Benzedrine, they create a “New Vision” manifesto based on freedom from conventional morality, “derangement of the senses,” and liberating poetry from the tyranny of rhyme. Meanwhile, Allen yearns for the dazzling Lu as more than a mentor, but he’s still unsure how to pursue his fledgling sexual urges, and Lu is more provocateur than potential partner. When Lu introduces a handsome new young writer, Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) into their group, the jealous Allen sublimates his longing by seducing them both with the passion and immediacy of his writing.
Meanwhile, lurking on the periphery of the group is David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall, of TV’s Dexter). Once a college professor himself, David has been shadowing Lu for the last couple of years; it’s David who hosts those wild off-campus parties, taking an instant dislike to anyone for whom Lu shows too much affection. Unfinished business between David and Lu provides the climax for Krokidas’ film.
With his brio, daring and insouciance, Lu functions in this film as muse to the others. But Carr’s real-life reputation for brilliance is not borne out in the story. Quick to embrace “genius” in the followers he collects, he never writes anything of his own; it falls to his disciples—first David, then Allen—to supply him with papers for his classes. This provides a certain narrative symmetry as Allen begins to perceive how he, too, might be used up and burned if he flies too close to Lu’s flame. (And, in real life, Carr was famed more as an editor than a writer.) Still, it’s confusing in the film that he’s portrayed as unable to write to an almost pathological degree.
And eventually, Krokidas’ stylistic intensity gets the better of the film, particularly in the overwrought climactic crescendo of blood, sex, poetry and jazz. (Followed by an odd dénouement in which the protagonist becomes Allen Ginsberg, Boy Detective, trying to sort out the facts of the case, along with Krokidas’ themes of obsession and artistic catharsis for the audience.) Still, the actors are well worth watching (with Radcliffe notching up another brave, post-Potter turn), even as the film splinters apart in its intentions.
KILL YOUR DARLINGS ★ ★1/2 (out of four) With Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Jack Huston and Michael C. Hall. Written by Austin Bunn and John Krokidas. Directed by John Krokidas. A Sony Classics release. Rated R. 104 minutes.