Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Kill Your Darlings

Kill Your Darlings, a featherweight but atmospheric biographical sidenote from director John Krokidas, chronicles the humble beginnings of a few of the most influential American writers of the twentieth century that came to be represent the Beat generation.  These literary rebels, which included the likes of Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac as primary members, have been the source of many recent films, most of which have been brunt with similar hero-worship adulation preventing the spark of character or interpretation to blaze through the screen.  Twas the case with 2010's Howl, the unconventional Allen Ginsberg chamber piece with James Franco that focused on the famed poet's obscenity hearings, as was with last years On the Road which never bothered to separate its cast of characters from their legend status.  Kill Your Darlings, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last January, is an energized, well-acted affair that nonetheless suffers a bit from the same trappings of over-sized fandom.

Fortunately, beyond the period artifice and drapery of Kill Your Darlings, there's a small but fascinating story at its center.  It just takes a while to get there.  Starting in the late 40's in New York, Ginsberg (played by Harry Potter's Daniel Radcliffe in full Jew-fro do-up) is isolated in a unhappy situation living with his father Louis (David Cross), a modestly successful poet in his own right and mother Naomi (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a depressive in between hospital stays.  His world and social calendar opens up with his enrollment to Columbia University, where the budding still-in-closet writer and fragile introvert will meet the group of people that would inform not just himself but an entire generation.  Thankfully Krokidas isn't nearly as heavy-handed with the introductions of the soon-to-be literary icons, but their introduced with such broad strokes it borders on parody from time to time-- especially when nitrous-addicted Burroughs (played to the gallows by a dryly funny Ben Foster) and carousing Kerouac (Jack Huston) enter the fray.

Krokidas is more interested in the early relationship between Ginsberg and fellow Columbia prankster Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) marking Kill Your Darlings a rare coming of age/biographical hybrid-- the film adds a third hyphenated genre prong in the third act.  A careful yet carefree study of hormones and the twitch of not-quite tapped radicalism, Ginsberg and Lucien (nicknamed Lu) become fast friends and something more while starting to form a writing movement on their own high off drugs and wine and a bubbling attraction.  There's a spirited sense of play as the group show-off their verve to the stodgy and old-school Columbia establishment-- including disregarding the old status quo qualifications of meter and rhyme as "easier," yet the film makes little more of a case than these guys are nothing more that snobby pranksters, a mode that jazzes the film with a puckish playfulness until the more somber last huzzahs.

Of which might itself have been an entirely different film than the first three-quarters of.  Lu, all style and bravado and the luring hand to Ginsberg's future life the film suggests, was also a mighty troubled young man.  Plucked and saved by an older professor-- David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall)-- but uneasy about his sexuality.  As their relationship becomes more hostile, Kill Your Darlings turns into a darker footnote of the starts of the Beat generation, motivated by murder and obsession.  Krokidas, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Austin Bunn, misses the point a bit in the overly done up climax, a montage that bridges Lu's violence with Ginsberg's sexual awakening, but in its small way the film succeeds in coming up with a fresh angle to posit the literary idols, and manages to create a quietly moving gay historical footnote to go with it.

While many of the performances in the vast ensemble cast are mere imitations-- spot-on imitations, but nonetheless caricatures versus characters, DeHann, a striking young talent, is mesmerizing and alive as Lu who manages to mix wide-eyed curiosity tinged with arrogance to an effect that's simultaneously endearing and creepy.  He magnetically sharpens the film throughout its broad corners and map of famous players.  He also draws us in to the quieter, more reserved Radcliffe takes on, summoning a nice rapport that helps mask much of artificial sweetening surrounding the movie.  Of which makes Kill Your Darlings hardly enough for it be considered vital filmmaking but more than enough for serviceable pleasures.  B-

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