Kill Your Darlings is a film divided — a bit about the birth of the beat generation, with their wild new vision, their disdain for authority and their predilection for homosexuality, and a bit about the muse and the real-life murder that haunted their early days.
We open in 1943, Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) tears himself away from his troubled homelife with poet father (David Cross) and ailing mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in order to attend Columbia University. Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) is the swirling center of outsider life at Columbia University, drawing like-minded individuals interested in freedom of thought and creation of new arts. Together, Carr and Ginsberg explore a whole new world of intellectualism with William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston, be still my heart). Lingering always in the background is Carr’s uhh, friend David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), with his designs on Carr, threatening to interfere with Ginsberg’s own uh, friendship with Carr. Anyway, all of that is far too many names to keep track of — in short, a sordid tale of murder, idealism, and youth in the bustling city of New York.
What the film captures well is the heady freedom that college brings, the feeling that anything is possible, and the boys you meet are irresistible to you — so young, so filled with new ideas, new drugs and so many open doors you can’t run through them fast enough. Ginsberg’s world isn’t simply changed by Carr, he’s slingshotted on an entirely new trajectory, like a new planet orbiting the birth of a star. It’s implied that Ginsberg’s writing was born out of this difficult time, though the movie is never crude enough to make overt life from death/beginnings from endings characterizations.
The trappings of the film take it from slightly generic historical film to something great. From the interesting camera work that puts certain acts into sharper perspective by playing them in reverse, to the perfectly spare production design and costuming. Period pieces are always tempted to go over the top to convince you of their authenticity, but Kill Your Darlings holds back and through minimalism, convinces. The score is likewise restrained, a thing of beauty from one of the masters of modernity — Nico Muhly — a craftsman who only improves with time, so marvelous and magical is the score that it deserves special recognition. (Likewise accolades belong to the music supervisor, who expertly melded modern sounding tunes with period appropriate music to wonderful result.)
The acting across the board is fairly mannered, which fits all right with the imagined importance that most of the characters feel. It’s Dane DeHaan who is most remarkable, a relatively fresh face (most memorably seen recently in The Place Beyond the Pines) who is beautifully mesmerizing as a brash young man so captivating that others will throw their lives away to simply be near him. Daniel Radcliffe might never be able to escape his Harry Potter-ness, try as he might, but this role especially set on an old-timey school campus, where he’s wearing spectacles and vintage suits is particularly Pottery. He’s good as Ginsberg, torn by devotion to his mother and devotion to his own burgeoning self, and his graphic homosexual sex scene is fearless and filled with the unrelenting sadness of a love transferred onto a different body. In fact the overall handling of homosexual attraction is without the somewhat stereotypical handwringing, and is quietly, simply a fact of life, taboo for the times, and used as a weapon against Kammerer in the end, but still simply a fact of existence.
(Snide aside: When someone whips out an “old photograph” with two cast members in it, it’s almost always some kind of horrible Photoshop composite with their faces pasted onto different bodies. IT NEVER LOOKS RIGHT. Can’t we spend the extra $50 bucks or whatever it might be and get an intern on the case? There must be another way, people. Also, Kyra Sedgewick guests as Carr’s mother, and truly she looks so similar to Jennifer Jason Leigh I thought they were perhaps the same person. Confusing casting!)
Those delighted and enthralled by the young Beat poets and the birth of cool will delight in this true-around-the-edges look at the time and place it all began. But while the end result is satisfying enough, the film is still scattered, and some of the things that make it interesting (camera work! anachronistic music!) also draw you out more than they draw you in. Overall, Kill Your Darlings is tightly made, forgivable of its sins, and the origin story of an entirely different sort of American superhero.
Amanda Mae Meyncke is a writer living in Los Angeles who works on movies sometimes.