Editor’s note: Our review of Kill Your Darlings originally ran during this year’s Sundance Film Festival, but we’re re-posting it as the film opens today in theatrical release.
In Kill Your Darlings, Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) is an aspiring writer but one that is trapped under the weight of his successful poet father (portrayed with a reserved performance from the usually comedic David Cross) and his mentally unstable mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh). When Allen gets into Columbia, his father encourages him to go and become the writer he has always longed to be. But in his first poetry class, Allen rubs his professor the wrong way when he questions why poems have to rhyme and follow a certain structure. In doing so, he also catches the eye of one of his fellow students, Lucien “Lu” Carr (Dane DeHaan).
Allen makes his way down to his room one night and the two share a drink and begin talking about poetry and writing. It is the first time we see Allen truly light up inside, talking about something he is so passionate about with someone who understands him. Lu takes him downtown to a party at the house of his friend David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), and as Allen enters he proclaims, “Allen in Wonderland.” And it is true, as we watch him suddenly enter a word full of people who think like him but also act on it, writing, drinking, and creating.
Lu challenges Allen to start writing for him, for a new movement he is looking to start that breaks away from the confines of the standard rules of writing and creating poetry. With additional encouragement (and experimental drug use) courtesy of William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster), Allen finds himself falling further down the rabbit hole and into this world of seemingly endless creativity.
While his grades at school suffer, his relationships with his friends flourish until Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) enters their lives and Lu’s attention turns from Allen to Jack. It becomes clear that Allen feels more than just creatively rejected, but he is not the only one, as David begins turning up everywhere Lu is, desperately begging him to come back to him. Lu is an unquestionable flirt as he dances around all the different people in his life, but when he is confronted with these flirtations, a violent and manic side of Lu comes out.
Kill Your Darlings is essentially the story of Lu’s time at Columbia, as told through Allen’s eyes. However, this results in a half-telling for both these boys’ experiences when focusing solely on one or the other would have been more compelling. Director John Krokidas (who co-wrote the script with his former college roommate, Austin Bunn) brings the beginnings of the Beat Generation to life through kinetic montages that show the boys finding their voices while vibrating off everything around them — including each other. Well-placed music helps to drive the narrative and give this period piece some modern day life, but it never quite resonates, as Krokidas jumps between a more classic narrative to one that is in-your-face, keeping the film from ever truly finding its tone.
The Upside: Strong performances from the entire cast, particularly DeHaan as troubled Lu, Foster in one of his oddest roles to date, and Radcliffe in a very un-Harry Potter turn; an affecting montage highlighting the various turning points in each character’s lives; energetic music that makes this soundtrack a must-have.
The Downside: Never really hits or finds its footing, making it a decent and at times inspiring film, but one that leaves you wanting to dive more fully into either Carr or Ginsberg’s lives.
On the Side: Krokidas first wrote the screenplay for Kill Your Darlings in 2001 and it took him twelve years to finally get the film made.