At the very least, Kill Your Darlings is a fairly ingenious idea for a movie. Taking a little-known murder case in the early lives of Ivy League undergrads Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac and using it to frame a tale of creative, sexual, and social awakening, John Krokidas’s film has ideas and ambition to spare. What could have easily become a Muppet Babies for the Beat set turns out to be, at least at first, a touching look at the intermingling of adolescent and literary passion in a world on edge. Somewhere in its conception, though, lie the seeds of its (partial) downfall.
The film follows young, talented Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), a frustrated teen from Paterson, New Jersey, as he enters his freshman year at Columbia. There, he becomes captivated by Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), a charismatic bon vivant who likes to get up on tables and recite Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer from memory at the top of his lungs. “Lu,” as he’s called, introduces Ginsberg to wealthy Harvard scion and nonstop drug-experimenter Burroughs (Ben Foster, introduced in a bathtub clutching a mask feeding him nitrous oxide), as well as hunky, talented senior Kerouac (Jack Huston). Together, the four of them begin to breathlessly explore the creation of a new creative movement, to be called the New Vision, which will rejuvenate American literature and tear down the stuffy, hidebound morality and culture all around them. The nation might think it’s fighting fascism abroad, but these guys are convinced the real fascists are here at home, hiding in the ironclad poetic rules of meter and rhyme, and in the sexual mores governing society. “Let’s make the patients come out and play,” they proclaim. “We need new words, new rhythms!”
What’s that you ask? Oh, right, the murder. While all this is happening, there’s also an older gentleman by the name of David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), who expresses a bit too much fondness for Lu. For all his sophistication, the man is clearly obsessed, pathetically, with this beautiful young boy. He also appears to have given Lu some of his bolder ideas, so the notion of said ideas now being shared with the likes of Ginsberg and Kerouac (all of whom Kammerer sees as potential romantic rivals) clearly drives him nuts. The film opens with Lu dropping Kammerer’s bleeding body into a river, so I’m not really spoiling anything when I say that the story builds up to the older man’s death. Is it a murder, or a blood sacrifice in the name of art? Is he the darling being killed, or is there something more symbolic going on here?
The screenplay, written by Krokidas and Austin Bunn (and, full disclosure: I went to college with these guys), provokes a lot of questions about the nature of influence, of tradition and revival and death and rebirth. And, for a while, it juggles all of them fairly effectively, in part thanks to the uniformly excellent cast. As Ginsberg, Daniel Radcliffe has to do a lot of journeying: He’s our audience surrogate, but he also has to go from wide-eyed naïf to burgeoning visionary, hinting at the oddball, revolutionary figure he’d eventually become. It’s one of the film’s boldest ideas, actually, to take the perpetually alienating and uncompromising Ginsberg as our “in.” But it works: Watch his queasiness, the tremble in his face, as he opens his acceptance letter to Columbia. DeHaan, for his part, finally gets to smile in a movie — sort of — and you can see what it is that draws all these people to Lu. It’s a surprisingly tricky part — a person who in real life would likely be insufferable, the kind of entitled peacock who walks into a party, kisses the first girl he sees, and complains that she tastes “like imported sophistication and domestic cigarettes.” But the young actor lends him just enough torment; you sense genuine vulnerability lurking behind all that fey confidence.
Krokidas is smart enough to let most of the film’s drama play out in close-ups and to get out of his actors’ way. But he also offers up stylized montages, perhaps in an effort to convey the artistic revolution being cooked up: Some scenes play out (briefly) in reverse; background action stops; the action slows down. But it’s a very old-fashioned version of “style” and “experimentation” — lacking the looseness, the hypnotic unpredictability of the Beats. Even a couple of utterly conventional contemporary pop songs rear their heads. (One of them, TV on the Radio’s “Wolf Like Me,” has already been overused in movies — including Joseph Kahn’s Detention, a film which, for all its flaws, is probably closer in experimental spirit to the Beats than anything in Kill Your Darlings.)
Narratively, Kill Your Darlings can’t quite keep all its balls in the air, and by the end all these connections the film attempts to forge — between the murder, the war, gay sex, culture, etc. — begin to feel more like a thesis than a human drama. And the canned stylization does the subject no favors, either. What’s the point of giving such a formal and, yes, traditional treatment to this story? Last year’s On the Road had a similar challenge, and made up for it (in part) with a reflective quality — it deliberately felt like a movie made by an older man looking back at the foolish rootlessness of youth. Kill Your Darlings wants to be a young man’s movie, but it’s all “cinema du papa,” as the French New Wave used to call it. The philosophical disconnect is downright cosmic.