Kill Your Darlings Movie Review

Catherine Ellsberg ’16
Assistant Arts Editor

You might have to suppress some giggling in the beginning of Kill Your Darlings, John Krokidas’s new film on the emergence of the Beat generation of poets. Daniel Radcliffe, our favorite wizard, stars as a young Allen Ginsberg (before his cause célèbre days) as a freshman at Columbia University. Radcliffe, sporting bushy hair and clunky spectacles, does his very best to distract you from any predictable Harry Potter allusions  – and surprisingly, he succeeds. Though you might feel an occasional pang for Hogwarts and Harry’s boyish charm, any lingering thoughts of Gryffindor mostly evaporate as Radcliffe stakes his claim in a challenging role – and does a hell of a job with it.

The film begins with a sudden, melodramatic murder scene that is both disorienting and shocking. Before you can wrap your head around the circumstances of the crime, the film cuts to Ginsberg’s story, which takes off in the humble setting of Paterson, New Jersey. At first, it’s unexpected to see the young poet interact with his parents in his modest, suburban home (not least because his father is played by Arrested Development’s David Cross, in a somewhat odd turn of casting) – or rather, it’s slightly strange to see Ginsberg before he was Ginsberg. But it’s also here, in between interactions with the teenager’s disturbed mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and arguments with his (comparatively) mediocre poet father, that we can imagine the roots of disillusionment that will one day grow into the groundbreaking Howl. 

We continue to see this germ of future greatness when Ginsberg arrives at Columbia. At this point, he’s still shrouded by a layer of innocence and naïveté, taking in all the sights and sounds of the intellectual hub of the city. In a hilarious, game-changing scene, Ginsberg goes on a tour of Butler Library, where his pretentions guide discusses the sanctity of a few precious books hidden away in display cases. In this auspicious setting, Ginsberg meets Lucien Carr, an effeminate student, who clearly doesn’t care for the “sanctity” of Columbia academe, much less that of the Gutenberg Bible.

Lucien, or “Lu” (played with fabulous verve and fragility by the relative newcomer Dane DeHaan of In Treatment fame), takes quick hold of the impressionable young freshman. Ginsberg, who argues with his poetry professor about the vestigial use of rhyme and meter, is mesmerized by the mysterious Lu, who, though a poetry enthusiast, doesn’t believe in the constructs of rules or form. The film truly takes off with playful wit (and a deep reserve of intelligence) when Lu takes his new pal Allen downtown to a seedier enclave of brooding writers, casual sex and a copious amount of drugs.

It’s also here that we meet the young William Burroughs, so uncannily brought to life by Ben Foster that it’s almost creepy. Later, with Burroughs in tow, we meet Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston); though we know he’ll go on to On the Road fame, he is portrayed in the film as a massive jerk (especially to his girlfriend, played by the lovely Elizabeth Olsen). Scott of The New York Times rightly says: “If you are looking for critical perspective on the misogyny of postwar America’s most famous literary radicals, you will not find it here.”

But to make up for this slight gaffe in the plot, we get some darker, complex elements that prove only more challenging as the film progresses. It turns out that Lu, with whom Ginsberg gradually becomes enamored, has a disturbing relationship with an older man, David (a frightening Michael C. Hall of Dexter fame.) This “relationship” obviously involves sex (in exchange, David writes Lu’s school papers), but the dynamic proves to be more mercurial than, and not so easily pinned down as one might first expect. It’s clear David has an intractable hold over the boy, but it eventually becomes equally transparent that the factor of dominance works both ways.

As you might already suspect, this dangerous balancing act comes to swift, violent culmination by the end of the film. By this point, Allen has morphed more into the Allen Ginsberg figure that we are so familiar with today. In this respect – delineating the shift from bright-eyed wonder to fed-up disenchantment – Radcliffe’s performance is brilliant. When the film closes, you might want to keep following Ginsberg on his path to international acclaim – from New York to his famous days in San Francisco. Instead, though, we get just a tantalizing peek at this exclusive, crazy world, one in which our young writer “saw the best minds of [his] generation destroyed by madness.”

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