Like many of its characters, Kill Your Darlings is a film that lacks a narrative direction. It never seems quite sure what story it wants to tell. Some will probably argue the film itself is then a metaphor for said characters, but I have a hard time subscribing to that theory just as much as I wasn’t able to buy it with Sophia Coppola‘s The Bling Ring earlier this year. If that’s the case, so be it, but it doesn’t take away from the hollowness I was left with once the credits started to roll.
At the outset, our central focus is a young Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe). We’re introduced to his father (David Cross) and his psychologically ill mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and learn he was just accepted into Columbia University, where the bulk of the film takes place. He seems to know he wants to be a writer and is open to exploring new ideas, but he doesn’t seem to know where he wants to go with his writing or how to get there. He’s about to find some inspiration.
It’s 1944 and once on campus, immediately gaining our attention (and Ginsberg’s) is Dane DeHaan as Lucien Carr. We’re led to believe Carr’s influence on Ginsberg will be the story, but just as soon as he enters the picture so do fellow Beat Generation writers William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston). Could the film be about something more? Perhaps the founding of the Beat Generation as a whole as Carr, Ginsberg and Burroughs begin a journey in search of a “New Vision”, something to rock the boat and call their own — to move to a different beat if you’ll excuse the pun. Is this, then, the central story? Maybe not…
While the majority of the film is focused on Ginsberg and Carr, Kill Your Darlings largely leans on Carr, especially once David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) enters the story. Kammerer is a janitor at Columbia, but his background is a bit more complicated than that, as is his relationship with Carr and his ultimate kinship with Ginsberg. But is this the story?
Text that appears at the end of the film suggests Kill Your Darlings was intended as a story of Lucien Carr and the impression he made on Ginsberg, though we’re left wondering what exactly that impression was as I don’t think this film allows us to define it. If it does, “unfulfilled” is perhaps the best way to describe it, but it doesn’t feel like enough. Too much time is spent on unimportant details to leave the audience where it does and unfortunately those details bog the narrative down in redundancy and scenes that, for the most part, feel largely unimportant.
With so many themes and possible plot threads alive in the air the film runs into the problem of either being something or nothing at all, and by the time it ended I was left leaning toward the latter. I was intrigued and curious how it was all going to add up, but I don’t feel the metaphorically heavy climactic moments added up to what director John Krokidas believed they may have. For all the fun he has playing with ideas throughout, especially his on-the-nose, drug-fueled planting of the “beat” seed, I don’t think any of it elevated the film above the actual facts of the matter, as it’s forced to lean so heavily on the film’s closing text.
For what it’s worth, however, the performances are largely impressive, particularly Radcliffe and DeHaan in the lead roles. Both actors, however, have uphill battles to face based on their early roles, Radcliffe needs to shed the Harry Potter persona, which I’d argue he successfully has, and DeHaan is faced with being that creepy evil character in every film and I’m not sure he will ever be able to lose that as he just can’t seem to find characters to play that seem entirely happy. I’m not sure if the conflict is within DeHaan or it’s simply written on his face, but he’s an actor filled with angst and it works on screen, I just wonder if he’ll ever be able to play anything but such a character.
I felt Hall was a little stiff in his performance as Kammerer and I really don’t know if Foster’s performance as Burroughs is accurate or not, but it felt like a performance that was trying to stand out on its own rather than settle into the story.
Perhaps most impressive was the film’s production design (Stephen H. Carter) and cinematography (Reed Morano). From the outset, with a narrowly focused shot of a 1940s radio, the period was set in amber hues and for a low budget film, it nailed the time and place along with the costuming. It didn’t feel like actors playing dress-up in the least and Nico Muhly provides a solid score to accompany the feature, proving once again he’s a composer that needs more work, just check out his score for The Reader for further evidence.
Looked at merely for the pieces it’s made of, Kill Your Darlings, is a solid film, but those pieces don’t really come together into a complete whole. Several of the scenes would make for good highlight reels for the likes of Radcliffe and DeHaan, and even Krokidas shows promise, but for a film that seems to want to say something, it doesn’t seem to say much on its own.
Boiled down, Kill Your Darlings runs into an identity crisis, unsure of what it is and wants to be. Perhaps this is intentional as a result of its subject matter and Ginsberg’s own search for direction and an identity, but in the end it felt like a movie that never found its own way.