Based on true events, “Kill Your Darlings” tells the story of a pivotal year in the life of poet Allen Ginsberg, early in his literary life, when he was studying at Columbia. Played by Daniel Radcliffe, the straight-laced freshman Ginsberg falls under the sway of the charismatic, rule-breaking Lucien Carr (Dane DeHann), who introduces him to fellow writers Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William Burroughs (Ben Foster). Not so happy about Ginsberg’s new-found status as inner-circle member is Carr’s former lover David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall). Kammerer’s obsession with Carr leads the circle of friends to a shattering event that changes all their lives.
Director and co-writer John Krokidas examines the early days of these literary figures, before the legends have formed and the great works have been written. Alongside the true-crime story that leads to the climactic murder, Krokidas and co-writer Austin Bunn are equally interested in the coming-out aspects of the story, the shadowy world of gay life in that time period, and the irresistible excitement of personal revelation that Ginsberg may have felt. This gives the film a kind of divided nature, one that left me feeling short-changed on both accounts. The aura of foreboding in the seedier scenes dissipates quickly when the focus moves to Ginsberg’s awakenings to his newly budding persona, and his relationship with Carr.
In the year 1943, Ginsberg is still a shy, bespectacled novice, filled with frustration at his unhappy home life with a mentally unstable mother, and looking for something bigger when he applies to Columbia. He soon finds it—faced with stifling poetic rules, Carr leads him in literal cut-and-paste scissor sessions on the canonical great books. Burroughs introduces him to drugs that leave him typing in inspired fury and masturbating with equal intensity.
As that last line implies, there is no questioning Radcliffe’s commitment to the role here. He is asked to take some big risks by the filmmakers, and for the most part, he delivers. The film is Ginsberg’s view of events, but the larger personalities threaten to push him aside. His stubbornly low-key and nuanced performance helps counter some of the film’s divided and uneven nature.
Foster makes a convincing (though underwritten) Burroughs, down to the rumbling, tobacco-stained monotone. And Elizabeth Olsen stands out in her limited scenes as Kerouac’s put-upon girlfriend. But the rest of the cast is a disappointment, particularly Michael C. Hall. Kammerer is the instigator here, whose relentless pursuit drives Carr to an extreme action. Hall plays him as listless, strangely composed despite his turmoil, with little desperation coming through.
As Carr, DeHaan seems less a dangerous heartbreaker than a tween-dream rebel from the pages of a Stephanie Meyer novel. His vanity and selfishness is obviously part of the point, but we see little beneath that surface. His entrance scene, (leaping on a library table and quoting Henry Miller, complete with phallic prop) is intended to show his reckless disregard for convention, but just makes him look a complete prat.
The goodwill generated in Radcliffe’s performance can’t compensate for several ill-judged scenes– a weird and weirdly ineffective sexual encounter in the library stacks, some throwaway stabs at portraying the anti-Semitic and homophobic atmosphere, a poorly-edited library prank sequence that plays like a “Breakfast Club” outtake (“Emilio Estevez IS Allen Ginsberg in John Hughes’ ‘Beatnik Heroes Club”).
The film definitely looks good for its budget, with a satisfying sense of period detail and some inspired costuming choices. But despite the earnest intentions and sexual sensitivity, “Kill Your Darlings” can’t always keep its focus, losing itself in a divided whirl of sincere but half-formed ideas.
“Kill Your Darlings” is presented in1080p High Definition, in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. The transfer is adequate, with few problems visible. Producers must think this will be big in former East Bloc nations, as there are options for subtitles in English, English SDH, Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Hungarian, Polish, Portuguese, Serbian, Slovenian, and Slovak.
The audio track is 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, and is very satisfying in the details of hushed, intimate speech. There are dubbed options for Czech and Polish, in 5.1 Dolby Digital.
- commentary track with stars Daniel Radcliffe and Dane DeHaan, and co-writers John Krokidas and Austin Bunn.
- a straight-forward and occasionally interesting Q & A session with director/co-writer John Krokidas and co-writer Austin Bunn
- a set of deleted scenes
- a conversation with Radcliffe and DeHaan about their roles in the film, their preparations for playing real people on screen, and the challenges presented by the material
- footage from the Red Carpet premiere at the Toronto Film Festival
Examining a violent and little-known chapter from the early life of pre-“Howl” Allen Ginsberg, “Kill Your Darlings” struggles to keep on task, despite an acute awareness of the social issues involved and a brave central performance from Daniel Radcliffe.