Writers Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs made a profound and lasting impression upon American culture in the 1950s, but where did they come from? Who were their influences?
These are good questions that beg to be explored, and filmmaker John Krokidas crafts Kill Your Darlings as a classic origin story, with the future literary giants meeting in New York toward the tail end of World War II and coalescing into an anti-authoritarian, rebel-minded group bent on overturning crusty old traditions. Slender, attractive, and seductive Lucien Carr is identified as the fulcrum of the group, holding it together through the force of his personality.
However, the ideas and ideals of the future Beat Generation are expounded upon in a clumsy, entirely prosaic manner by Krokidas, co-writer Austin Bunn, and the cast and crew. Reed Morano photographs the film in a haze of shadows and darkness, so that the light of the group’s vivid imagination is never allowed to shine through. It’s as though mid-40s New York was always covered in clouds, with those most desperate to break out held back by society’s restrictions.
The Beat Generation cries out for a poetic cinematic biography, and Kill Your Darlings serves, at best, as an introduction. It’s all preamble, despite the best efforts of Daniel Radcliffe to embody Ginsberg with the soul of someon who is shucking off layers of old, dead skin like mad. Radcliffe’s Ginsberg can hardly believe that he can finally physically express his love for another man; the chains crumble and he brushes off what remains with relief.
Beyond Radcliffe, though, the other members of the cast struggle to capture the essence of their characters. Lucien Carr is meant to be a soulful, troubled spark plug, but Dane DeHaan can do little more than mope and groan and frown and scowl. Michael C. Hall is too wan a presence as Carr’s lover to convince anyone that he poses much menace. (Petulence, yes.) Ben Foster croaks out his lines in a skit-level imitation of William Burroughs, and Jack Huston struggles to make sense of Jack Kerouac.
The latter disappointment is doubled because his character’s live-in paramour, Edie Parker, is portrayed by Elizabeth Olsen, who imbues a strong-minded woman with striking intelligence and stirring passion. David Cross and Jennifer Jason Leigh have fun with lighthearted performances as Ginsberg’s all-too-conservative parents.
Functioning as little more than a Cliff’s Notes version of a book that has yet to be written, Kill Your Darlings is well-meaning, and may even prompt some viewers to investigate the fictionalized writers more extensively. In that sense, it cannot be said to be a complete failure.
Kill Your Darlings opens at Angelika Dallas and Angelika Plano on Friday, November 15.