This review was originally published on January 20th, 2013 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
"I love complicated."
So says Dane DeHaan's Lucien Carr to Daniel Radcliffe's Allen Ginsberg, who says it right back to him a few scenes later. John Krokidas's marvelous and assured first feature, "Kill Your Darlings" is an unconventional love story to say the least. While one could categorize it as just more Beat Generation hagiography, it transcends the usual biopic limitations to tell a specific story about some well-known people with larger, universal implications. Whether you've got a frayed copy of "The Yage Letters" or not, it is a must-see.
Much as the Boy Wizard grew to his full potential at Hogwart's, the mild-mannered Jewish kid from Patterson finds magic at Columbia University. Young Allen Ginsberg has ideas about breaking rules (well, poetry rules) but is too meek to do too much about it. That is, until he meets the seductive Lucien Carr who takes him downtown, feeds him drugs and introduces him to the best minds of his generation.
Carr, Ginsberg and William Burroughs (outstandingly and outrageously played by an unrecognizable Ben Foster) are vessels just about to burst. They know they want to make their mark. They know they can change society. They just need to figure out how to do it. And before they can ever get to writing their masterpieces, they have to have life experiences. Unfortunately for Carr, it means treading too closely to real danger.
Also in the mix is David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), a former professor who is so devoted to the younger Carr that he follows him around like a puppy and does his homework assignments. Despite Carr's obvious intelligence, he lacks the discipline to actually do any writing. What he really is is a muse, and the chaos of his life, while trying for his friends, is the lynchpin for what will eventually become the Beat Generation.
Soon Jack Kerouac shows up, and there are hijinks to be had. Unlike the lusty recent adaptation of "On The Road," "Kill Your Darlings" has somewhat loftier goals. A major set-piece involves pulling a prank on the Columbia U. library that, in retrospect, is damn near square. When things finally do get sexual, it is treated tenderly and seriously. Indeed, Ginsberg's first consummated homosexual act is juxtaposed with Burroughs doing heroin and Carr finally taking irrevocable action against Kammerer, arguably the defining act for all three men.
There are a few steps in "Kill Your Darlings" that didn't quite work for me. The music choices range from obvious "Sing, Sing, Sing"-style percussion to some anachronistic rock, and there are some tangents into the mystery genre that feel a bit unwelcome. Yet there are many nice flourishes, like our team galavanting through a jazz club while the world around them is frozen. And then there are the performances.
I really can't say enough good things about Radcliffe and DeHaan. There is a chemistry between the two of them that is more than just sexual. DeHaan's Bowie-esque stare would have set the Warhol factory ablaze, and Radcliffe's developed a strong sense of confidence. Foster's Burroughs gets a lot of the laughs, but there is a sadness behind his crisp suits and otherworldly poise. John Krokidas is an actor's director, and with this being his first feature, I expect we'll see a lot more good stuff out of him.
Filmmakers love the Beats. (Hell, the Beats were filmmakers — just watch "Pull My Daisy!") "Kill Your Darlings," while certainly more of a straight narrative, might be the best Beat film since David Cronenberg's "Naked Lunch." It is an all-around success.
SCORE: 8.7 / 10