“First thought, best thought.”
I’ve grown up in a very liberal age and I’ve been surrounded by diversity throughout my life. I, like many, could be a primary example for the success of the flipswitch that cultivated preference toward provocation and ambition instead of tradition and convention. I’m a conveyor belt product of 1960’s prototypes that fueled musical legends, pop cultural revolutions, and literary freedom – all of which provide the foundation for many, if not all, stimulating conversations of today. The beatnik legacy is cross-media and cross-generational, clearing a path for supportive innovation and towing along any and all forms of pretension. But while these beatnik types ring around high school libraries flowered by the intense adoration of AP Literature teachers country-wide, the actual lives of these influential scribes were nothing short of torturous.
In John Krokidas’ electrifying and unsettling Kill Your Darlings, we gaze upon the introductions between some of literature’s most famous rule-breakers. Deflated by his collapsing home life, Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) secretly applies to Columbia University where he excitedly begins a higher learning experience soon influenced by strong drug use, frenzied writing, homosexuality, and emotional violence. Practically star-struck by the radiating personality of Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), Ginsberg accompanies his rebellious friend to dangy jazz joints in Harlem, imbibes Benzedrine, breaks into collegiate libraries to rob them of their controversial texts, and meets other left brainers like William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston). Together, they theorize about brewing a literary revolution, planning each of its stages and outlining its intentions, all relatively fun and frivolous, totally unaware of what their respective futures hold. Unfortunately, a shadow is cast over their spunky aspirations in the form of David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), a mysterious former guardian to Lucien Carr, whose affinity for Lucien is more than slightly obsessive. As things take a serious turn, these people become caught in a thickening plot facing decisions that will change, divide, and define them for the rest of their lives.
For a debut feature, Krokidas has assembled an absolutely monstrous ensemble, which also includes David Cross, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyra Sedgewick, and Elizabeth Olsen in support. The talent on screen is electrifying and it’s the acting that really gives the film a fighting pulse. Radcliffe sheds his Harry Potter skin and holds back from very little, fearlessly capturing the idealism and malleable persona of Ginsberg if not exactly turning in a wowing performance. Ben Foster turns in his second most restrained performance of the year – after a brilliant supporting play in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints – and Jack Huston just absorbs every facet of Kerouac and brings to him life just as works like On the Road suggest. However, the film’s best performance, by a fine margin, is from Dane DeHaan. As we close in on the two-year anniversary of his breakout, Chronicle, DeHaan has been ceaseless in conveying his immeasurable charisma and wildly confident presence. He’s electrifying in Darlings, so much so that the film just naturally gravitates toward his showmanship even though Radcliffe’s Ginsberg is technically the focal point. With acting this good, many other technical missteps can almost be instantly forgiven.
Props to Krokidas as well, who directs with jazzy unpredictability and style; there’s a great deal of flair, its film stock grain being the most identifiable, and its rhythmic montages jive with sharp musicality. There are segments in this film that are just so nicely stitched together they feel nicer than what they’re actually conveying. The script is painfully on top of what its talking about, desperately looking to create these people as screen versions of what they’re about to become but in younger bodies. Sometimes it’s like ‘Yung Beats’ but with the idea that it’s much more mature. If the screenplay had decided to be more relaxed it wouldn’t be fighting with Krokidas’ direction for the spotlight. I admire Krokidas’ audacity in capturing the incredibly impressionable aura of this period and it’s very inviting, evidencing why it wasn’t hard for these lost souls to become so wrapped up in their surroundings and in each other.
Still, for all of its merits, the film’s overall impact is lacking. Sure it’s fun and stylized and progresses through tonal shifts pretty finely, but the story, of which it eventually plots into and wraps up with blocks of text over a black screen, isn’t as visceral or affecting as the filmmakers surely intend it. The bleak back half of the film focuses on a rather trivial event amidst the pantheon of beatnik tales, which restrains it from really delivering on its importance. Come the credits, viewers are supposed to have a sense of why these people are going to become the instrumental figures that we learned about in high school and analyzed throughout our tenure at a liberal arts college, but that conclusion is drawn in two dimensions. It’s flat and unfulfilling.
Kill Your Darlings was a slayer earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, becoming one of the best-reviewed films to premiere there. Over nine months later, it finally gets a public viewing and it’s disappointing to see it miss the mark. Kill Your Darlings isn’t the memorable movie experience many claimed it to be. It’s good, and evidences exquisite acting and reputable directing potential, but it does try too hard. Subtlety is key in character studies, and with Darlings looking to walk the fine line between character study and historical thriller, it relies on showy performances to compensate for being too straightforward. It’s a stylish film for sure, with parts both fun and heartbreaking, but it inspires a few cringes in how ready it is to tell you about everything that is going on without letting you figure it out emotionally. Had an emotional affect lingered, than I would have surely lauded it along with all of those Sundance audiences.
Article by Mike Murphy