Young, Gay, Jewish, Talented, and Out of Control: My Review of Kill Your Darlings

A Drama

  • Written by Austin Bunn and John Krokidas
  • Directed by John Krokidas

Interesting how Indiewood has embraced the beats lately–especially Allen Ginsberg. Depending on how you look at it, Kill Your Darlings is the second or third feature about Ginsberg in the space of just over three years. First there was Howl, about Ginsberg (James Franco), his controversial masterpiece, and the obscenity trial it generated. Then came On the Road, where Tom Sturridge played a character (albeit a supporting one) clearly based on Ginsberg.

Now comes the best of the three, with Daniel Radcliffe playing a much younger Ginsberg trying to find himself at Columbia University while war rages in Europe and the Pacific. Kill Your Darlings looks at the birth of the beats, as a handful of young men try to tear down all that society holds sacred and create their own way of living, loving, and writing poetry.

And on top of everything else, there’s a murder. Or maybe it was self-defense. It really happened, by the way, although I have no idea how much the movie plays with the facts.

The filmmakers capture the exhilaration of youth bursting into new adulthood–the energy, the new freedom, the sexual excitement, and the belief that you could change the world. The camerawork and editing start out staid and conventional, but burst at the seams with dizzy style as Ginsberg and his friends drink, take drugs, pull pranks, and visit parts of New York far wilder than the serious and calm Columbia campus. In one bar scene, an African-American band plays the most exciting rendition of "Harlem on Parade" I’ve yet to hear.

Of course, some of these young men really did change the world. Not just Ginsberg, but also Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William Burroughs (Ben Foster).

But the film’s central relationship is between Ginsberg and Lucien Carr, played as a lightning rod of rebellious charisma by Dane DeHaan. Carr is the one who guides Ginsberg into the lifestyle that would later be called The Beats. He encourages him to break literary rules while introducing him to alcohol, cigarettes, pot, and interesting people.

But their relationship has its problems. Ginsberg, still in the closet, nurses a major crush on Carr, who is straight but also a sexual opportunist. He’s sleeping with a brilliant older man (Michael C. Hall) who keeps him in school by writing his papers for him. This exploitative relationship lead to the violent death that dominates the final act. (And no, that isn’t a spoiler. I’ve told you nothing that you don’t see in the film’s first few minutes.)

This was my first chance seeing Radcliffe not playing Harry Potter (oddly, the first time you see him, he has a broom). His performance is excellent, as is his American accent. His nervous laugh, overwhelmed expressions, and mixture of fear and joy open a window into the soul of a young man discovering the big world out there. Yet DeHaan outshines him as Carr. You can’t take your eyes off his energetic performance.

I liked all three recent Beat films. But Kill Your Darlings is easily the best of them. Maybe someone could organize a triple feature.