I think it would amuse the writers of the Beat Generation
that so many filmmakers have been drawn to their lives, and works, in recent
years. They were avant garde in their time, and dramatizing them for a modern
audience is still no easy feat. What sets Kill
Your Darlings apart from the rest is its perspective, introducing us to
Allen Ginsberg (played by Daniel Radcliffe), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), and
William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster) as young men, still unformed. We also meet
two lesser-known figures: Daniel Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) and Lucien Carr
(Dane DeHaan), who apparently played darkly dramatic, pivotal roles in the
early lives of these future literary lions.
First-time director John Krokidas, who wrote the screenplay in collaboration with Austin Bunn, sidesteps the pitfalls of biographical films and never resorts to foreshadowing future events or name-dropping. He and his production team effectively evoke the look and feel of New York City (and, in particular, Columbia University) in 1944, when Ginsberg left his New Jersey home to become a freshman student there.
But the movie eventually begins to sink under the weight of its ambitions as it unveils the details of Carr’s influence on his young friends and Kammerer’s unhealthy influence on Carr. Repression and angst are the bywords of this film; after a while I found the effect to be draining rather than enlightening.
One can’t fault the performances. Radcliffe is particularly good as the bright, naïve young man who seeks escape from an oppressive home life with his poet-father (David Cross) and mentally unstable mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh). He crosses swords with an imperious English professor (John Cullum) as he takes his first steps toward expressing his individuality on the printed page. Foster captures the precious self-awareness of Burroughs, but Huston has his work cut out for him, as Kerouac’s character is vague and underwritten.
Kill Your Darlings may be worth seeing for Radcliffe, and to glean some newly-mined material about the Beats, but it’s a flawed piece of work, for all its good intentions.