Review: Kill Your Darlings

Director: John Krokidas
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHann


by Stephen Elliott

In recent years, there have been a number of films based upon the riotous chronicles and literary contributions of the Beat Generation: Big Sur (2013), On The Road (2012) and Howl (2010), each garnering various levels of attention and success, yet none fully reaching the obscure popularity to resemble the works they honour. Unsurprisingly, then, these films have settled into their place on tumblr blogs and the shelves of indie-film enthusiasts. Premiering at Sundance Film Festival and quietly endeavoring to break the mold, Kill Your Darlings is Krokidas’ hottest offering starring Daniel Radcliffe (no introduction needed) and Dane DeHann (Lincoln, Lawless, Chronicle).

Advertised as ‘A true story of obsession and murder’, the film does its utmost to avoid being lumped into the category of Radcliffe’s “I’m Not Potter” performances. Indeed, the still-young actor plays a greatly convincing Ginsberg upon his arrival at Columbia University, besotted and inspired by his peers, searching madly for his beginnings as an influential poet. Having appeared most recently in the chilling Woman in Black and the hilariously grim Sky series A Young Doctor’s Notebook, costarring alongside Mad Men’s John Hamm, Radcliffe’s Kill Your Darlings effort stands to solidify his bid to be viewed as a serious actor with an ostensible passion for his art. DeHann, too, proves his salt, energetically portraying the troubled, boldly brilliant and unmistakably contorted Lucien Carr. It is the dynamic intertwining of these two minds, the electric back-and-forth between Radcliffe and DeHann that sparks as the most exciting element of this film.

However, for all the impressive character acting, the film falls short as an exploration of Beat origins. Yes, we glimpse the sad background of Ginsberg’s family life that inspired ‘Kaddish’; yes, we taste the gritty, jazz-and-drug-fueled reality of downtown Manhattan in the Forties; and yes, we may gladly check off the integral inclusion of Kerouac and Borroughs – but something is lacking amidst these one and a half hours of intrigue. Essentially, Kill Your Darlings can be viewed as two things: a depiction of the birth of the Beat Generation; or a literary-clad drama, unfurling the intricacies of a sexually scandalous murder. As the former, the film fails for the very reason that the latter is so evidently the crux of the film. In its potency, this aspect is sadly overpowering for any viewer yearning after a more ‘Beat-like’ retelling of Ginsberg’s early adulthood. Perhaps if Krokidas had attempted to capture the mystique of the Beats with the very spontaneity and feral innovation that drove the movement, we would not have been left with what is, in actuality, a murder-mystery.

This said, the film is far from bland and remains enjoyable throughout. Each scene is aesthetically pleasing and manages to effortlessly transfix the viewer. This is most notable at its open and close, which come full-circle in imitation of Yeats’ ‘A Vision’, the book that inspires Carr and Ginsberg’s literary revolt early in the film. The narrative unfolds at a steady pace, predominantly driven by a dialogue as delightfully poetic as one could hope for.

Is Kill Your Darlings set to convince the modern masses of Beat brilliance? I wouldn’t say so, if only for the sense that it is restricted by its concentration on ‘obsession and murder’. Will it resign to a place on tumblr blogs and the shelves of indie-film enthusiasts? I wouldn’t say so either. It may let down fans of Ginsberg and the Beats, but in no way does it fall short as entertainment. The sheer commitment of actors to their roles, the chemistry between Radcliffe and DeHann, and a dark, handsomely stylistic production and design all serve to elevate the film to triumph where its predecessors did not. Kill Your Darlings makes for a captivating and well-crafted breather from the persistent string of blockbusters that have hogged the screens this year.