I’m always grateful when a film reminds me of that unmistakable feeling of being attached to a seat cushion, physically changed by the film’s end. My gut sinks, my vision narrows, and I lose myself in thought, while the audience clears out the aisles or joins me in contemplation. There are many films that make me forget this feeling and make me feel that I am no longer capable of feeling it or that films are no longer capable of giving it to me.
Kill Your Darlings is not one of these films. It’s spellbinding, entrancing, and intensely personal, despite dipping into America’s lexicon that some literature buffs may consider blasphemous. Not since The Social Network has material so ripe for error and overwrought dramatics turned out a film that gets everything right.
Kill Your Darlings
Director: John Krokidas
Release Date: January 18, 2013 (Sundance Film Festival)
I keep thinking back on all the parts where I suspected Kill Your Darlings would take a wrong turn, because it really is the type of film you expect to take a wrong turn. The opening title card that flashes KILL YOUR DARLINGS across the screen, temporarily pausing a conversation as the words hit the screen like bullets. Or, a sort of heist scene in the middle of the film where TV on the Radio’s “Wolf Like Me” comes on — an odd choice that goes against the film’s established score of hauntingly warped piano (wonderfully composed by Nico Muhly) and era appropriate jazz. It’s in the confidence of vision that precedes and follows these moments that dictates whether they are pretentious or brilliant. And Kill Your Darlings is only ever brilliant.
Kill Your Darlings follows the life of Allen Ginsberg (played to perfection by a post-Potter Daniel Radcliffe) before the world read Howl, or were even capable of conceiving his unique style of poetry. Allen takes off to Columbia University, leaving behind his reluctant father — played by David Cross, who you may also mistake for Paul Giamatti due to his stature but mostly due to his convincingly downtrodden presence — and schizophrenic mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Though Allen is keen about writing, he doesn’t call himself a writer. Or at least he doesn’t upon meeting classmate Lucien Carr.
Allen is immediately infatuated with Lucien, though his intentions for their relationship are as unclear to the audience as they are to Lucien. Lucien thrusts Allen into bohemian society on the Lower West Side of Manhattan. There’s William Borroughs huffing gas in a bathtub at a party and over there is Jack Kerouac throwing a football at a painting on his apartment wall (a wall that his increasingly frustrated wife shares.) With such bold icons of literature, there is a lot that can go wrong with characterizing them according to their works later in life. Yet, Kill Your Darlings does an incredible job of turning each of these legendary writers into ambitious young men angry at their families, society, and the institutionalization of literature that dictates what is tasteful and what is not. Their everyday speech is a form of poetry but not one that reflects what goes on the page. These are smart men that believe themselves to be creative geniuses, even when others doubt.
Kill Your Darlings opens and ends with the murder of Lucien’s “guardian angel,” a creepy lover that Lucien can’t seem to shake off (Michael C. Hall plays the role with the quiet menace we’ve come to love him for on Dexter). Instead of forcing this pivotal moment that would change the lives of these young men into the plot, the script gives the characters room to convincingly bond and set the rules for the beat generation they would inspire. By the time the killing happens, the act has deeper threads to all those involved, making it a spiritual decline for all involved more than an act of savagery. World War II has ended but a new battle arrives right outside Allen’s door.
Impeccably shot, acted, and lit, Kill Your Darlings is a tale of love, murder, and artistic intuition that cuts on more than one layer. Like the group of friends the film portrays, Kill Your Darlings‘ unlikely cast and crew form the perfect storm, culminating in a specific vision of a time and place we thought we knew well but clearly do not know well enough. Though I suspected the film to go south during the first 20 minutes, the remainder made me expect I’d walk out of the theater with chills running down my spine, in the way that great poetry does, visual or otherwise.