If “Kill Your Darlings” was a superhero movie it would be an origin story. Like “Batman Begins,” or “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” which detail the formative years of Bruce Wayne and James Howlett before they made their mark on the world, “Kill Your Darlings” looks at the lives of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs before they became the superheroes of the Beat Generation.
Set in 1944 the film follows Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) through his rebellious years at Columbia College. “There’s more life in this paper, “ he says handing his work into a stuffy college professor (John Callum), “than in all the sonnets you’ve had us read this year.”
The shy wannabe poet falls in with a crowd of intellectuals—William Burroughs (Ben Foster), David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan)—whose ethos rubs against the grain of “square” societal norms. They experiment with drugs, booze, sexuality and their art, laying the groundwork for the Beats, (although that term didn’t come into use until 1948), a loose collective who valued free expression over the accepted communal and political systems of the West.
But all that came later. “Kill Your Darlings” is the groundwork; the opening of Ginsberg’s eyes. Thirteen years before he wrote “Howl,” one of the most famous and controversial American poems, he first explores his homosexuality through an attraction to Carr and opens his mind to new ideas.
It’s a slick, stylish movie that captures the excitement of the time through fast paced editing and lots of shots of Ginsberg furiously typing and smoking. That we’ve seen before in almost every period piece involving writers, but I’d have hoped for more revolutionary filmmaking in a movie about revolutionaries. (For that rent David Cronenberg’s “Naked Lunch.”)
Clichés aside director John Krokidas has good performances to work with.
As the manipulative, troublemaking Lucien, DeHaan is perfectly cast. He’s the engine that drives the movie, both thematically—“You were ordinary like every other freshman and I made you extraordinary,” he says to Ginsberg—as well as dramatically. His (SPOILER ALERT) arrest for the murder of his lover Kammerer, and the questions of personal responsibility it raises, takes over the last half hour of the film.
It is Ginsberg’s story, however, and Radcliffe sheds off any hint of Harry Potter to hand in a very good performance. He brings Ginsberg to youthful life, from nebbish to rebel to confident man who proclaims in the film’s final moment, “I am a poet.”
“Kill Your Darlings” makes a few missteps—the closing song by Bloc Party would make jazz fan Kerouac turn over in his grave—but allows the performances to bring the characters to vivid life.