Kill Your Darlings deals with the early years of the Beat Generation writers and with Lucien Carr, the charming college student who knew all the key players and introduced them to each other in the mid-1940s.
Daniel Radcliffe, with the earnestness and commitment of an actor wanting to bust out of his Harry Potter image, plays the future Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. But its Dane DeHaan, as the dangerous and charismatic Carr, who makes the strongest impression.
As directed and co-written by John Krokidas, in his feature debut, Kill Your Darlings takes place in a murky world of dark wood, dim lamps and shadows, and he depicts these young men as looking for the light.
Through the literature of the future, which they hope to write, they want to change the world, and their guides are the sacred texts, the words of like-minded poets and writers throughout the ages. In its best moments, Kill Your Darlings conveys the excitement of young people believing in books and striving to remake themselves.
Tall and handsome, with the slimness and elan of a decadent lord, Carr is a sexually ambiguous figure, attractive to everyone and aware of his own seductive powers. He is prone to making literary pronouncements and telling people what to do, and for the young, gay Ginsberg, Carr becomes the embodiment of an ideal and the standard to live up to.
The films title refers, of course, to the oft-repeated literary advice that writers should eliminate their most precious and writerly passages. But it has other meanings and reverberations as well, and these reveal themselves as the film wears on. The film presents most of the Beats including Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster) but the two main dramatic threads have to do with Carr: (1) Carrs relationship with David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), an older man who, obsessed with Carr, followed him from school to school; and (2) Carrs influence on the life and poetry of Ginsberg.
Ultimately, these two points of emphasis must be pared down to one, and this is where Kill Your Darlings, arriving at the fork in the road, makes the wrong turn. The dramatic and interesting story of Carr and Kammerer is pushed just to the side, in favor of showing the effect all this has on the seething, roiling consciousness of the young Ginsberg. But what is the effect? He takes speed and types for a long, long time. In another scene, he writes a mediocre poem and reads it to Kerouac and Carr on a rowboat.
In a sense, the writer-director is gambling that his audience will see Ginsberg as a great artist and will, therefore, be interested in witnessing the slow and painful progress of his development. But even then, thats a risk, because how does one present, in dramatic terms, the maturation of a writers sensibility? Meanwhile, had Krokidas concentrated more on Carr and less on Ginsberg, he would have held on to those who see the Beats as important artists while also getting the attention of those who see them as merely a fascinating and influential cultural phenomenon.
Despite its general intelligence and worthy performances, Kill Your Darlings makes it difficult to see how the Beats ever caught on.
Exclusive: Angelika Dallas, Angelika Plano; opens Nov. 22 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth