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Non-Review Review: Kill Your Darlings

Kill Your Darlings feels like several different films all rolled into one. Is it an English major detective story about investigating one ruthless act through character and theme and other literary devices? Is it a coming of age story about a young man finding himself at college in New York City against the back drop of the Second World War? Is it a condemnation of the recklessness and the irreverence of the young Beat movement? Is it a standard college adventure story about young students sticking it to the man, and refusing to let authority figures tell them how to live their lives?

Kill Your Darlings is most interesting in the space between the familiar genre trappings, when it focuses on the characters at the dawn of the emerging literary movement. Indeed, the spirit of the film is best captured in one drug-induces segue in which our characters find themselves slipping between the reality and existing in a gap between moments. Kill Your Darlings is by turns romantic and cynical in its handling of Allen Ginsberg and his development as a young artist, featuring a wealth of superb central performances which can’t quite hold the film together.

Given the literary cut-up technique that we see the gang experiment with here, it feels strangely appropriate that Kill Your Darlings should be an uneven mess of a film, with a wealth of great ideas existing in the space between plot and tone and substance and reality. It just doesn’t make for a particularly satisfying film.

Talkin' 'bout the Beat Generation...

Talkin’ ’bout the Beat Generation…

There are a few brilliant moments in Kill Your Darlings. In particular, the film’s last act comes together relatively well, as Allen Ginsberg finds himself forced to piece together the shattered fragments of one horrible evening. As the police follow their own lines of enquiry, Ginsberg launches his own investigation. It’s not really based on witness testimony or forensic evidence. Ginsberg’s version of events unfolds in private, without anybody watching.

Instead, he works to construct a narrative around the crime by fitting it into little pieces of information and scraps of life that he finds lying around. It’s what’s not said that becomes important, and it’s telling that Ginsberg finds the evidence for his theory in the same room where he had helped pioneer the iconic “cut up and reassemble” technique by tearing pages out of classic books and arranging them to form a work of art that is original in its own right. (He even finds vital evidence tucked away inside a book quite like those he so angrily tore up.)

Burrough-ing for cover...

Burrough-ing for cover…

As such, Ginsberg reconstructs the crime as only a writer can, providing his own “new vision” from the familiar elements on offer. After all, as the post-script to the film reminds us, the events depicted here would inspire many of the writers involved. Ginsberg drafted The Bloodsong to cover the events that unfolded; he was convinced to abandon it for fear of what it might do to the reputation of Columbia University. Burroughs and Kerouac wrote And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, a collaboration that was eventually published in 2008.

There’s a sense that Kill Your Darlings might be a more interesting film if it radically restructured itself – starting and ending later. As it stands, quite a lot of the film’s first two-thirds feels rather generic. Barring a few wonderfully crafted psychedelic sequences from director John Krokidas, far too much of Kill Your Darlings recycles familiar college movie tropes. Ginsberg attends Columbia and finds himself, clashing with harsh authority figures who vigorously defend the status quo.

Allen should know better than to Cross his father...

Allen should know better than to Cross his father…

His friend Lucien Carr rambles about the irony of fighting fascism in Europe when academic fascism is so strong at home. The college is a stuff and staid institution, and has no time for Ginsberg and his friends to indulge their creativity. Cue pranks and sexual misadventures and Ginsberg learning to be his own man while wrestling with his idols. Recalling one argument with his father, Ginsberg insists, “I’ve never not cared before!”

The use of iconic and recognisable literary figures lends the movie a quirky appeal, but far too much of that first half feels like it’s covering familiar ground. It feels weird to see these conventions applied to recognisable names like Ginsberg and Burroughs and Kerouac, even if the film does feel a little bit too fannish at times. We discover that Lucien has wandered off with a handsome footballer named “Jack”, only to later discover that it’s Kerouac.

Nothing to Gin(sberg)...

Nothing to Gin(sberg)…

To be fair, it was a trick that worked well in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, a movie consciously treading off nostalgia. Kill Your Darlings feels like it might be stronger if it adopted the same passionate “tear down your idols” approach that Lucien and his colleagues so strongly advocated, instead of simply playing The Libertines over clips of the boys sneaking around the campus library at night.

That said, the performances are impressive. The ensemble here is pretty fantastic. Radcliffe continues to work hard to distance himself from his most iconic role, and his work in Kill Your Darlings is certainly impressive. Similarly, Dane DeHaan works really hard to make Lucien Carr a riddle that the audience struggles to solve. Rather than present Carr as a generic two-dimensional idol figure, DeHaan seeds the character’s flaws and brilliance throughout his performance – layering Carr in a quirky cocktail of desperation and insightfulness.

Couched in familiar tropes...

Couched in familiar tropes…

Ben Foster does nice work as W.S. Burroughs, skirting around the edge of the film, even if the movie itself seems unsure of what to make of Burroughs. Spoilt rich kid or literary genius? The film never commits entirely to one possibility or the other, and Foster suggests that Burroughs is a far more complicated figure than the movie allows, occupying the edge of the frame, and providing a few vital snippets of dialogue here or there. (Also, casting David Cross as Louis Ginsberg is an inspired decision, and Cross would actually make a suitable lead for a bio-pic about Allen Ginsberg’s later life.)

Kill Your Darlings has some interesting ideas and some fascinating subjects, but can’t quite make the most of them. It struggles through a very conventional first half into a far more interesting climax. However, there’s a sense that Kill Your Darlings would be more interesting if it was willing to commit to that brutal exploration of one of the more controversial and mysterious events in the history of the beat movement, rather than giving us familiar college movie clichés.

2 Responses

  1. Great review! I look forward to learning whether or not I agree when I finally see this movie. 🙂

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