[This is a re-post of my review from the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Kill Your Darlings opens today in limited release.]
If poetry doesn’t broaden our view of our world and force us to push the boundaries of our lives, then it’s pointless. Poetry cannot always tap into the chaos and beauty of life if it must be constrained by meter, verse, and rules set down centuries ago. Poetry, when wielded by genius, can seduce, defend, condemn, and most importantly, transform. Words are powerful enough to change the world, but even in the hands of the most gifted writers, they can be futile against our frailties, insecurities, and desires. In his magnificent debut feature, director and co-writer John Krokidas has created a moving, exhilarating, and heartbreaking film in Kill Your Darlings. Led by breathtaking performances by stars Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, and Ben Foster, Kill Your Darlings watches the greatest writers of a generation push the boundaries of modern American culture only to find that even the best words, the most well-spoken words, the most honest words, can fail when spoken to a shattered heart.
After grabbing our attention with an intense opening scene between the two lead characters, Kill Your Darlings circles back to 1943 and a young Allen Ginsberg (Radcliffe) going to Columbia University to follow in his father’s footsteps as a poet. Ginsberg, a fan of Walt Whitman, quickly bristles as the rules his professor attempts to force on poetry. The young man’s rebellion catches the attention of classmate Lucien Carr (DeHaan), who introduces Ginsberg into a “wonderland” of expanded thinking courtesy of big ideas coupled with doses of Benzedrine and nitrous oxide. Through Carr, Ginsberg befriends William Burroughs (Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), and the young men go forth to create “The New Vision”, which will tear down artistic fascism and bring the world into a new age of creative freedom. But a shadow is cast over their glorious, boundary-breaking mission as Ginsberg becomes further enthralled with Carr, and competes for his affections with David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), who has a complicated relationship with Lucien.
Krokidas shares the passion, the energy, and the erudite rebellion of his main characters. In one of the film’s best scenes, the members of “The New Vision” break into Columbia’s restricted section to liberate material like Lady Chatterly’s Lover and images of pornographic Roman pottery. Up until this point, Krokidas uses period-appropriate music. But once the break-in begins, Krokidas plays the song “Wolf Like Me” by TV on the Radio. Like his characters, Krokidas refuses to play by contemporary rules, and he celebrates the wild, passionate, and aggressive art brought forth by Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Kerouac. Kill Your Darlings brims with vitality and verve because Krokidas knows how to tap into the passion of the characters, but never forgets the subtext of his story.
The director and his co-writer Austin Burr wrap their plot in murder and fill the story with artistic ambition, creative madness, and unrequited love. The dialogue sings with a writer’s voice of carefully chosen words that can deceive, plead, confess, and coerce. Through the script and his cast, the power of poetry becomes unlocked as we understand not only its form, but the majesty of its function. Through the voices of his astonishing cast, poetry comes to life and reaches its full potential.
Radcliffe’s transformation to the next phase of his acting career is complete with Kill Your Darlings. The range and magnitude of his performance here is nothing short of breathtaking. We feel every ounce of Ginsberg’s pain, frustration, and longing, and Radcliffe makes it look effortless. So much is happening inside Ginsberg—from the development of his poetic voice to his guilt over his schizophrenic mother’s imprisonment at an asylum to his love for Lucien—Radcliff perfectly hits every moment in the character’s emotional whirlwind. He is the broken but still beating heart of the story, and his longing for Carr is almost completely devastating.
The sublimity of Radcliffe’s work is matched by the staggering performance from DeHaan. Combined with his recent films, Kill Your Darlings establishes DeHaan as one of the greatest actors of his generation. He is completely and utterly seductive as Lucien, and we become as mesmerized and enraptured as Allen. We immediately understand why Ginsberg and Kammerer would fall for Carr, and why he could recruit geniuses like Kerouac and Burroughs to “The New Vision” even though Lucien lacks even a modicum of their writing talent. When Lucien raises a glass to Allen and says, “To Walt Whitman…you dirty bastard,” DeHaan owns us.
The rest of the cast overflows with talent. David Cross, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Elizabeth Olsen all shine in minor roles. Huston charms and disarms as a Kerouac, who can arouse Ginsberg’s jealousy and also endear the young poet with a few kind words. Hall is both pitiable and pathetic as the lovelorn and desperate Kammerer. And once again, Foster disappears into a role. It took a few minutes for me just to recognize him behind Burroughs’ distinctive wireframe glasses and a voice that is both monotone yet strangely melodic. Foster remains one of the best and most underappreciated actors working today, and his work here would be as notable as Radcliffe and DeHaan’s if Burroughs had more screen time.
These actors and this filmmaker have a way with words, which is perfect for a film that shows the ways words can create and destroy. Today, poetry sadly feels like a bit of a dead art form. Can anyone name the U.S. Poet Laurette? Is that person even any good? Who’s the best poet working today? Kill Your Darlings reignites the urgency of poetry and submerges us in a sublime ode to the transformative power of the written word. Poems shouldn’t be empty words lying naked on a page. Krokidas and his phenomenal cast remind us that great poetry must not be forgotten; it needs to be understood, embraced, and celebrated for the great and horrible power it possesses and how it possesses us.