Film Review: Well-Dressed ‘Kill Your Darlings’ a Largely Empty Suit

Darlings 2“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”

The quote above is quite well known in writing circles – it is good advice that’s been attributed to William Faulkner and a host of other scribes. And it provides the double-entendre title of a new fictional film called Kill Your Darlings focused on the roots of some famous Beat Generation figures (not to be confused with another movie of the same name that quietly came and went a few years back).

John Krokidas’ debut feature (which he directed and co-wrote with best friend and college roommate Austin Bunn) focuses on 1944, the year when future “Howl” author Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) was 17 and started studying at Columbia University. We get the well-worn “start at the end” beginning: his budding best friend and worst nightmare Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) has just fatally stabbed (depending on whom ones asks) his stalker or his lover, a much older man named David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall).

Darlings 12Ginsberg is faced with either helping Carr compose a statement that paints him as an innocent who acted in self-defense or writing a more complicated story that just might be the truth. From there we go back and find how Ginsberg, Carr and Kammerer all came together, along with such Beat luminaries as William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston). We also delve into Ginsberg’s very shaky family foundation as we meet his mentally unstable mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and failed poet father (David Cross).

The movie has the right look for its subject and period courtesy cinematographer Reed Morano, production designer Stephen Carter, costume designer Christopher Peterson and colleagues. And obviously it can be interesting to look at the early lives of those who became famous later, but much of Kill Your Darlings is standard “pranking, drinking and sex show we’re rebellious” coming of age stuff from the prominent-writers-to-be. About the only times the film is edgy and engaging are the moments when the mercurial Carr is center stage – DeHaan certainly knows how his character should manipulate others (and even the audience).

Darlings 11Radcliffe is very earnest in his work, though his glasses come closer to reminding one of Harry Potter than might be good for this phase of his career; Hall certainly knows how to do a mix of menacing and vulnerable. Foster and Huston do their jobs but offer no new insights into the portraits of Burroughs and Kerouac that have emerged over the years; Leigh has made most of her career playing the mentally infirm so her work contains no surprises either. Cross is interesting because the smirk that normally accompanies his roles is not present here; he thankfully plays it straight and hopefully will take similar assignments in future. In fleeting appearances Kyra Sedgwick as Carr’s mother and John Cullum as Ginsberg’s English Literature professor also provide solid support.

There’s some intentionally anachronistic music from Jónsi Birgisson and his Icelandic band Sigur Rós in the Nico Muhly score – perhaps it underscores the notion that the 1944 setting may be historical but not dated in terms of contemporary relevance.  But other than a fairly superficial look at a homicide case that some argue shaped the Beats we’re left with a movie that feels more like a “young intellectuals” version of teenage angst. The late John Hughes did a far better job with that topic than the well-dressed but largely empty suit that is Kill Your Darlings.

Darlings 4Kill Your Darlings (http://sonyclassics.com/killyourdarlings) is playing in Nashville exclusively at the Regal Green Hills Stadium 16 (3815 Green Hills Village Dr.); see www.regmovies.com for times. Rated R for sexual content, language, drug use and brief violence, 100 min. Directed by John Krokidas; written by Krokidas and Austin Bunn. Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Jack Huston, Ben Foster, Michael C. Hall, David Cross, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Elizabeth Olsen, Kyra Sedgwick, John Cullum and David Rasche.

 

*Photos by Jessica Miglio and Clay Enos courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).