“It’s our turn to show them what we can do,” Daniel Radcliffe says as the young poet Allen Ginsberg to his compelling contemporary Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) in the inspiring youthful biopic Kill Your Darlings. The film takes on the untold story of the murder that brought together Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William Burroughs (Ben Foster) at Columbia University in 1944, lighting the fire that led to the creation of the beat revolution, which defined a rebellious generation in a time of conformity.
Directed by John Krokidas and written with Austin Bunn, the independent film had its world premiere at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, followed by this screening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Rose Cinema, with an expected wider release sometime next Fall. The story is about Ginsberg’s journey of becoming a poet with new words and new rhythms, but at the heart of it, it is about a confused youth coming into himself as an artist in a dark time of great personal conflict.
As these young men begin to start their poetic revolution, ‘the new vision,’ in response to their frustration of learning only the ‘correct’ form of poetry in their studies, Lucien tells Allen, “Right now, I just need you to write us something beautiful.” And while Allen embarks to do just that, the film does what few others have successfully been able to do: draw you into the creative process as an active participant rather than an impartial observer, in a way that makes you truly understand what Allen is experiencing. An exciting montage of him experimenting with writing, that’s simultaneously chaotic and beautifully fluid, sucks you into a whirlwind of creativity. It’s fast paced, knifing through the old methods, moving forward with the ‘new vision’ and backward in memories. When the excitement dies and Allen has his comedowns, you too feel like you’re coming to a jolting halt. The abrupt changes in adrenaline leave you with the same level of discomfort Allen is feeling, but that uncertainty of what’s right or wrong or real is strangely intoxicating.
When Allen presents his first beautiful poem to Jack and Lucien, he shows that he has more to say than anyone would have expected from the once dutiful son. “You who have suffered, find where love hides,” he says. He’s a tortured soul, struggling with a dysfunctional family past that won’t escape him, and the confusing desire to experience new horizons. But the words don’t just come from anywhere; They’re pieces from memories that already happened in the film, making you understand exactly how and why Allen wrote this, once again making you feel like part of its creation.
The drug-induced sequences that are “exploring the avenues of Allen’s mind,” are innovative and expertly executed. Nothing is cheesy or overdone; there’s no gimmicky special effects usually used in cliche drug-trip scenes. It suspends reality and makes you wonder what is or isn't happening, keeping you locked into the experience once again as a participant. And the decision to mix modern music with traditional sounds of the 1940’s encapsulates the themes of rebellion and breaking from conformity. Like the ‘new vision’ of the Beats, it’s an innovative rhythm that pays off in originality.
The tangible chemistry Daniel Radcliffe has with Dane DeHaan makes his stiff romantic plots in the Harry Potter films seem laughable. He proves that he can be realistic and relatable in portraying tormented uncertainty in experimental love. You pity him and his unrequited desires and fantasies. DeHaan is equally captivating, seducing Allen and the audience, while simultaneously garnering a similar sympathy for his own struggles of being overwhelmed in a toxic relationship.
The gay sex scene that has been getting so much media attention is brief, and should not be the only part of the movie that is being talked about, as the film has so much more importance within it. That being said, it is executed flawlessly, leaving little up the imagination. It makes you feel as uncomfortable and vulnerable as Allen feels, being infatuated with something he can’t have and trying to confront that in an unfamiliar frontier.
Daniel Radcliffe has never been particularly lauded for his acting ability, and is adored more for bringing a beloved character to life than for his actual talent shown in the Potter films. His sympathetic, touching performance in Kill Your Darlings exceeds all expectations, so that you will never doubt his ability as a dramatic performer ever again. This film proves that while he may be known for only showing one side of himself, he has plenty more to say.
But perhaps above all else in the cast, Michael C. Hall stands out as the most versatile actor and complicated character, David Kammerer. He is introduced as someone who seems important and intimidating, but is quickly revealed to be chilling and constricting in regards to his obsession with Lucien. This slowly unravels into something that feels perverted, twisted and literally insane. But then unexpectedly, you begin to feel painful remorse for him as you start to understand how complicated his relationship with Lucien actually is.
What makes this film different from so many others like it is how intimate it feels in its most gritty moments. From Allen’s first sexual encounter to a brutally realistic attempted suicide, to finally the murder that brings the Beat poets together. Perhaps we’ve become accustomed to murder in films by gunshot or other quick methods that take the humanity out of the action. But the climatic violence here is so delicate and personal, that it makes your stomach turn. You can’t quite take a side or choose a villain, and you pity murderer and victim alike. You want the killing to stop, and at the same time you want him to keep going and end it all. It’s disturbing to watch because you begin to question your own morality, which speaks wonders to its power.
When Ginsberg submits his final paper to Columbia University, about this scandalous story of him and the other Beat poets at the dawning of their brilliance, the Dean says “It’s smutty and absurd.” Allen smartly replies, “But you finished it.” Kill Your Darlings is exciting, sexy, awkward, youthful, disturbing and above all rebellious. It doesn’t conform to the stiffness expected in most dusty historical films, but that’s just what the Beats would have wanted. As the director said, “This is not your father’s biopic.” It’s smutty and absurd, but you finish it, and you’re left wanting more.