Review: Kill Your Darlings
If you're a fan of famed Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, but always thought he was too, I dunno, dowdy and nebbishy for your tastes, then Kill Your Darlings is perhaps the film for you. John Krokidas' new film about the early days of the Beat poets (call it Beat Poetry: The College Years) recasts the famed Bohemian literary revolutionaries as impeccably dressed and unbearably handsome young Turks, who go to the dangerous areas of New York, take drugs, make all manner of direct sexual overtures to one another, and who don't ever seem unkempt, dirty, naughty, or, well, revolutionary.
To be fair, Kill Your Darlings does capture a very particular college-age ethos just perfectly. What college student hasn't sat around in a darkened coffee house or bar, BS'ing about social theory until dawn, laughing at dumb in-jokes, and theorizing about how your current generation is the only generation that is capable of tearing down the moldy idols of the fascist adult world, using nothing but your unhatched intellect and youthful enthusiasm for revolution? The advantage that the characters in Kill Your Darlings have over the average college student is, of course, that they actually managed to pull it off.
Daniel Radcliffe plays the young Allen Ginsberg as a lovelorn soul, seeking escape from a dour homelife with a mentally ill mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and a somewhat supportive father (David Cross). The central relationship in the film is between Allen and the even-more-handsome Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan, continually proving how good he is) and how the two of them are both clearly gay and clearly poised to have an affair, had they ever slowed down the intellectual chatter long enough to land in bed together. It is Carr that will take Ginsberg into the world of gay bars, black nightclubs, and drug-fueled apartment parties that are all being held under the banner of mind-expanding revolutionary experience. For a long portion, Kill Your Darlings teeters on love story.
Yes, eventually Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster) enter the picture. I wish there had been more scenes with them.
Indeed, even if the film were not about a man who would grow up to be a literary giant, Kill Your Darlings would still be a rollicking ride through the emotional and intellectual roller-coaster of early gay college life. The pranks. The library blowjobs. The destruction of old texts to make wall-mounted collages. All of that is immediate and grand.
But this movie was all based on fact, and a real-life historical event not only put a damper on these young peoples' lives, but on the movie as well. Lucien Carr was, in 1944, accused of murdering an ex-lover named David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), and was eventually exonorated, even though he was indeed guilty. The final third of the movie becomes preoccupied with this (admittedly dramatic) event in a way that makes the entire film seem more and more like a turgid and melodramatic murder mystery, complete with modern-day electronic trip-hop, broody moments of dramatic padding, and a quick forgetfulness of any energy that it previously had. I understand we've introduced themes of lovers leaving, a murder, and the hurt and betrayal that comes from those acts, but did the film have to slump into such deliberately sad-sack downer territory? The drama kind of withers in these late passages, and the brooding becomes a mite insufferable.
Something I didn't know about: There was once a law on the books regarding something called “honor killing.” That is: if a homosexual man were to proposition a heterosexual man, the heterosexual would then be legally allowed to murder the homosexual. It's an included detail that lends Kill Your Darlings a bit of a political edge. For a few moments, that turgid murder plot looks like it will trek tantalizingly into dark ethics.
For a film that is about illicit sexuality, crime, revolutionary poetry, and copious drugs, it's weird that the film has no grit on it. It is clean and safe and pretty. The actors all look like J. Crew versions of their real-life counterparts. Its take on the Beat poets is about as authentic and as deep as Julie Taymor's Across the Universe was to Beatles music. The energy is real, but the effect is all surface, all show, all handsome visuals, and no actual filth. For poets who were unafraid to read the smutty books, slept around, and recited the F word in crowded rooms, you would hope the film would be a little scuzzier. These are neat, clean Beat poets that would make their parents proud. It's a little baffling that the tut-tutting college dean hated Ginsberg so much. Ginsberg is clearly a nice, handsome go-getter in this universe.
But bad storytelling and lack of grit aside, Kill Your Darlings is still, overall, a delight. Maybe I'm just nostalgic for the halcyon days of Bohemian college life (or whatever neutered drink-free version of that I personally lived), but I liked being in school with these would-be revolutionaries.
Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles Trolling, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.