KILL YOUR DARLINGS – The Review
All right movie geeks, it’s true-life movie origin story time. I’m referring to a sort of pre-greatness biography flick. Of course, when the origin word is brought up you may first think of the comic book heroes that populate multiplexes during the warmer months (well, now a certain Asgardian is establishing a Fall beach head). Said characters usually begin their film or comic series with the story of what happened before they donned cape and mask. And Superman even has a long-running spin-off set in his own past, as Superboy. The movies have done the same thing with real folks many times over the years. There’s YOUNG MR. LINCOLN and YOUNG TOM EDISON to BUTCH AND SUNDANCE: THE EARLY YEARS to NOWHERE BOY (about a pre-“fab four” John Lennon). The new film KILL YOUR DARLINGS takes us to the college years of famed beat poet Allan Ginsberg of later “Howl” fame. But it’s not all about lectures and libraries. Along the road to literary stardom, Ginsberg and some other famous scribes encountered a horrific crime.
As the film begins, said crime has been committed and an arrest has been made. But then we flashback to the teenage Allan Ginsberg (Daniel Radciffe), typing away under the watchful eye of his cold, intellectual poet father Louis (David Cross) while trying to take care of his mentally fragile mother Naomi (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in the early 1940’s. One day a reprieve from his stifling life comes in the form of an acceptance letter from Columbia University. Allan will live on campus as he pursues his ambition to be a poet. While touring the campus, the button-down Ginsberg encounters the flamboyant, rebellious older student Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan). The freshman is immediately drawn to the charismatic senior poet who introduces him to Manhattan nightlife along with some of his friends: writer and “chemical expert” William Burroughs (Ben Foster), gregarious poet/ ex-merchant marine Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), and the older college janitor who has a past with Carr, David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall). As the young men break the rules of the literary arts, they experiment with sex and drugs, and eventually are embroiled in a web of deceit, infatuation, obsession, and murder.
After using the Broadway stage as a vehicle to burst into more adult roles with “Equus” now Radcliffe follows up his THE WOMAN IN BLACK with this very provocative movie role. His Ginsberg is a man finally liberated from his prison of a home, and thanks to Carr is finally spreading his wings (in addition to exploring his sexuality). The young poet, upon meeting his mentor, is filled with curiosity and eager to join his intellectual crusade. These feeling turn to love as Ginsberg rejects the hard rules of academia. Radcliffe completely throws himself into to the role showing us that this fine actor is much more than the eternal boy wizard. DeHaan, after dark roles in THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES and CHRONICLE, goes even darker as the self-proclaimed leader of this new re-thinking of poetry. We can see his interest in young Ginsberg as he delights in taking him under his wing. But then there’s his other side, one of blase’ cruelty, slowly shown to the underclassmen and evident in his dealings with Kammerer. Hall conveys him as a man of obsession, drawn to someone who dismisses him as a relic of the past. Foster gives Burroughs a cool, serious “lab nerd” vibe as the promoter of “better living through chemistry”. But as their group dissolves , he realizes that no amount of stimulants will put them back on track. Huston brings a lot of energy to the outgoing Kerouac, who doesn’t seem to realize that Carr wishes to be much more than friends. There’s terrific supporting turns by Cross as the aloof father and Leigh as the too-fragile-for this-world mother along with Elizabeth Olsen as Kerouac’s neglected fiance and Kyra Sedgwick as Carr’s high society mother who must return from her Park Avenue parties in order to clean up after her son’s indiscretions.
First time feature director and co-screenwriter Krokidas gives the film a nice nostalgic mood. His 1940’s campus is full of muted greens, greys, and browns suggesting an old faded photo from a forgotten scrapbook. And besides the center piece crime, he also gives the film a palpable sense of danger as homosexuals were routinely arrested by police in addition to being expelled and fired from jobs. Unfortunately the film stumbles as it tries to portray the writing process. Here it is fueled by drugs, so the film makers resort to amped-up collages intercuting be-bop musicians with the principals feverishly pounding away (often in the nude) on their typewriters, accentuated with sweaty close-ups and motor-mouthed chattering. But there is that wonderful cast who look very authentic in the wonderful period clothing. The film has a great sense of time and place even as the story meanders. KILL YOUR DARLINGS an interesting, often involving “origin” story of this real life literary team. They’re almost a poetic “Avengers” with a very dark, complex leader at its center.
3.5 Out of 5
KILL YOUR DARLINGS opens everywhere and screens exclusively in the St. Louis area at Landmark’s Tivoli Theatre