When any filmmaker decides to chronicle a largely undocumented or unknown corner of history revolving around famous cultural figures, a question that can raise its head is: what's underneath the surface that compels the director to make the story?
In the case of the “Kill Your Darlings" ("Beat Generation: First Class" would be also be an apt title), the impetus for telling this story could be to illuminate the Beats in their formative years, diving into their impulses and drive. The emotional core could be to elucidate the loves and friendships within this libertine circle and the spiritual center could be to reveal how these ordinary young men became extraordinary. But as a friendship and coming-of-age tale mixed in with a bit of a murder mystery, "Kill Your Darlings" doesn't really humanize these characters beyond half-drawn caricatures in an origin tale that wouldn't be out of place in an average super hero film.
Set in 1944, a budding Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) dreams of a life beyond Paterson, New Jersey and the dysfunction of his parents; the poet Lou (David Cross, who not-so-coincidentally played Ginsberg in "I'm Not There") and his mentally fraying mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The young Ginsberg is the glue that holds his tenuous family together, but when his Columbia application comes through, the young 21-year old, hungry for experience, cannot turn down this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Sharp and already building a challenging air against authority and form, Ginsberg's horizons begin to expand when he meets the mysterious, alluring and handsome Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), a plucky and dandy-ish sophomore who is intent on breaking all the rules with his insouciant charms. Curious once Ginsberg brings up the meter-and-rhythm-breaking Walt Whitman in poetry class, Carr introduces him to Yates, Rimbaud, booze, cannabis and soon-to-be famous friends like a young William Burroughs (Ben Foster). Ginsberg becomes Carr's pet project, transforming him from unremarkabe freshman to a copacetic member of their inner circle, and soon these budding free spirits are indulging in the now, almost-legendary (and now-familiar) consumption of jazz, benzedrine, booze, hipster joints and their bohemian likes in wild, music-filled montages that act as training sequences for becoming super cool and super poetic. While there is a wild energy to these sequences that's initially striking (especially in the film’s opening), the manic disposition of these scene helps pitch the already melodramatic and emo-laden nature of the film in a shrill direction.
During Ginsberg's Carr-facilitated creative awakening/un-square-ing journey, he meets Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), his girlfriend Edie Parker (Elizabeth Olsen) and Carr's estranged mentor David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall). Kammerer is essentially the villain of the piece. A friend of Burroughs and an English professor, he's infatuated with Carr, writing his Columbia papers for him, but the romantic feeling is only semi-mutual. When Carr introduces his new muse in Ginsberg, Kammerer has dagger eyes for this new rival. What becomes clear is that the seductive and shrewd Carr, a leader of sorts in this group thanks to his endless intelligence and charisma, plays everyone against each other, manipulating all to curry for his favor.
David Rasche co-stars as the Dean of Columbia, Kyra Sedgwick briefly appears as DeHaan’s mother, and likable character actor John Cullum plays one of Ginsberg’s professors admonishing the student who wants to run before he’s learned to crawl. And so while a strong supporting cast exists, a lot of the main characters are mainly one note. Ginsberg is the tightly-wound square who aspires for more, Burroughs likes to get high and expand his mind, Kerouac is mostly a philanderer, Parker is essentially a thankless cameo, Kammerer is desperate for Carr’s love and Lucien is aloof, fey and filled with velvety charisma that’s half pretentious, half intoxicating.
Thematically, the unsatiated thirst for experience and abhorrence to conformity is a big one, but it tends to get repeated over and over again like a hammer on a nail; each character monologuing about their desire to challenge the status quo, shake things up and generally upend the culture. Based on a true story, while a murder is part of the story, that action only manages to clutter a tale that already has to serve several characters.
All these issues aside, there's lots of individual elements of "Kill Your Darlings" that are easy to praise and admire. Next to the hermetically-sealed "On the Road," 'Darlings' at least has a big pulse. Shot by talented cinematographer Reed Morano ("Shut Up And Play The Hits," "For Ellen"), “Kill Your Darlings” often looks quite beautiful. The production design is great for its shoestring budget and Nico Muhly’s score ("The Reader," "Margaret") is often the most beautiful and affecting element of the piece. And then there’s the actors. As much as he’s done lately in all his recent roles, Dane DeHaan steals the show. He’s an impossibly cool rattlesnake wearing a cravat and is endlessly watchable and absorbing, even when the film takes a turn for the melodramatic in the final act. He’s already one to watch and this performance will only amplify this conversation. Radcliffe is also capable, his gay, nearly-graphic sex scenes will surely shock “Harry Potter” fans, but he pulls off a convincing young Ginsberg, albeit one many aren’t familiar with (and in case you need to know, yes, Radcliffe and DeHaan make out).
The feature-length narrative debut of John Krokidas, “Kill Your Darlings” feels stylistically kinetic and bold at first, and then unsubtle, not knowing when to say when — one can only tolerate so many montages and flashbacks and sequences running in reverse (additonally, other touches like the anachronistic use of TV On The Radio while bold, just doesn't work). Well shot and well made, “Kill Your Darlings” is a very competently constructed effort on a whole, but there’s an emptiness and familiarity at its core that it cannot transcend. As a thriller — which the film does have elements of — it’s perfectly engaging, and while it has a lot of blood coursing through its veins, what it's really missing is a soul; a substantive center and emotional hook that’s relatable beyond jealousy, betrayal and misguided anger. While documenting the nexus that spawned the Beat Generation can be entertaining, it's not exactly revelatory either. As it is, Krokidas’ super poets origin story is fairly interesting and relatively compelling, but far from an enlightening or deep story into the hearts and minds of these artists who would define a generation. [C+]