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).
Ginsberg 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).
Radcliffe 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.
Kill 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.