Kill Your Darlings provides an origin story for some of the most prolific authors writing this side of the American Renaissance with a bit of a hot-blooded, cold-fingered approach. A burning sense of urgency ignites the passion of the characters onscreen – coiled up and bouncing off the walls, lunatics as they are – but that same urgency is largely absent from the film itself.
Like a budding author who hasn’t quite found his style, John Krokidas‘ film gets too caught up with being a part of the excitement to really invite others to join the fun. There’s palpable joy bubbling from the screenwriters’ research and the performer’s larger-than-life embodiments, but like newcomers to a party in full swing, we’re observers, hopelessly trapped outside the true jubilance and forced to watch through a pane of glass.
Best known for his beatnik masterpiece “Howl,” Allen Ginsberg was once a college freshman just like you, Kill Your Darlings supposes. Friendless, desperate to separate from his parents, and pining for his knack, his niche, his next big role, Ginsberg is in many ways the wide-eyed youth of our generation – filled with hope and promise, propped by all-angles encouragement, and saddled with lofty expectations. Horn-rimmed glasses and a head of greasy, wavy hair may not be a far cry from his garb of Potterdom but Daniel Radcliffe certainly experiments with a new breed of performer’s personality as Ginsberg, a refreshing break from the tired cliché of the white-bread young hero.
As a man struggling with his creative genius as well as his wavering sexuality, Ginsberg is a kettle boiling over with deep-seated self-frustration. He knows there is something worthy buried within him but struggles to access it. When he meets fellow student Lucien Carr, his world is opened to an intellectual renaissance, sexual reinvention, and, naturally, drug experimentation. After all, isn’t that what college is all about?
The Ginsberg that meets Carr is dressed in a secondhand suit literally sagging off his shoulders (a visual clue representing the idea that Ginsberg has yet to grow into himself) and is immediately transfixed by Carr, just as we are transfixed by Dane DeHaan. DeHaan as Carr is simply on fire. A conflagration of ideas breaching societal norms, Carr is a student of drunken revolution, lighting up the lives of those around him and activating something buried inside them. As it goes, Carr and Ginsberg are a match made in heaven. Manic reveler, DeHaan brings a magic quality to Carr like he brought brokenness to Jason in The Place Beyond the Pines and emptiness to Andrew in Chronicle. DeHaan is quickly becoming the most talented young actor in Hollywood and his fiery performance here just helps to solidify that fact.
But for all the excitement born of Radcliffe and DeHaan’s circling one another intellectually, sexually, emotionally, and otherwise, the beats surrounding these beatniks are often in a downward spiral. We see the invisible magnetism of Carr but the many relationships he involves himself in are shallow and unearned. Save for a recurring relationship with kind of sketch-ball David Karramer (Michael C. Hall), the foundations upon which his web of friendships stands are shaky, if not totally crumbling. The balance between telling a succinct story and anthologizing the true characters within it have gotten the better of screenwriters Austin Bunn and Krokidas, as they carve too many side paths that fail to pay off down the line.
Beginning with a murder, of all things, sets our expectations up for a different kind of story, a more suspenseful piece than the period drama which unfolds, and for all accounts, this conceptual slight of hand is symbolic of the film’s casual failure. Like Ginsberg’s fluttering sexuality, Kill Your Darlings just doesn’t quite know what it is. Surely, the murder involved in the narrative is a critical piece towards understanding the ebb and flow of this character’s relationships, but it is more of a caveat than a central focus. Considering that the murder at the film’s introduction is more a postscript to the tale about the Beatnik generation’s roots, this tactic of putting it front and center seems like a diversion aimed to capture an audience that will clearly feel deceived by curtain time.
Better thought of as a mildly failed experiment than an abject defeat or a soaring victory, Kill Your Darlings scores big with great performances from its leads but directionless oversight from first-time filmmaker John Krokidas. Ambitious to a fault, he needs to narrow the focus and give more weight to a strong-footed narrative rather than ambling up each and every the peripheral sub-story that may present itself. With more confidence and tighter vision, Kill Your Darlings may have been excellent. As it is, it’s just pretty good.
Dallas Buyers Club opens in Seattle tomorrow and can be found at the Sundance Cinema Seattle or the Regal Meridian.