Sundance U.S. Dramatic Competition entry Kill Your Darlings is a perfect example of how one can tell a familiar story in a unique, fascinating way. Many are familiar with the Beats generation, but the way debut director Johnathan Krokidas and co-writer Austin Bunn see it you haven’t seen the definitive version of the tale till you see their film. Kill Your Darlings is a fascinating sojourn into the origin story of the Beats, kind of like The Avengers: Beats Edition set in the backdrop of the suffocating rigidity of 1944 Columbia University with a sharp script filled with an incredible social commentary. In short, it’s one of the best films I’ve seen so far at Sundance.
The movie begins with Allen Ginsberg getting into Columbia, amidst an interesting home life with his mentally ill mother. Ginsberg is a bit lost in the world, trying to figure out how to be a great writer, as well as trying to reason with his homosexuality. He bristles against the structured nature of the literary world, but luckily a chance meeting with Lucian Carr changes all that. With Carr as inspiration/instigation and friends like Jack Kerouac and William Boroughs, Ginsberg becomes a vital part of the movement they would all become known for. However their success is threatened by Carr’s relationship with David Kammerer and when Carr murders him the course of all of their lives changes forever.
This might be John Krokidas’ feature film debut but you wouldn’t know it with the deft hand he employs here. He manages to get great performances out of all the cast and injects the film with an incredible energy. The real strength of the film is the screenplay. Without getting too much into next year’s awards season, I’d be hard pressed not to see the screenplay in contention for many prizes. Bunn and Krokidas manage to make a well told tale feel fresh and exciting, while not sacrificing any of the stories honesty. It’s incredibly sharp in its characterizations especially with regards to Carr’s legacy within this generation. It’s telling that the script paints Carr as both an essential catalyst and a non-factor to the development of the Beats. He sets the plot in motion, lights a fire in the belly (and loins) of many of the characters and yet he never writes anything. The dichotomy of Carr’s, and the rest of the group’s purpose is something I find more fascinating the longer I ponder the film. The social commentary with regards to homosexuality in the time period and how the establishment could use shaking up every once in a while was really sharp. The script isn’t all social commentary though, as there are plenty of laughs and sex scenes like Carr watching Ginsberg getting blown in the library and one particular scene with Radcliffe and a random guy that will be sure to set the internet ablaze once this film reaches the masses.
Daniel Radcliffe is serviceable as Allen Ginsberg, serving more as an audience vehicle than a full fledged character. It’s tough coming on the heels of James Franco’s movie star-type performance of Ginsberg later in life in Howl and Tom Sturridge’s great take on the role in On the Road, but Radcliffe gets a more interesting storyline in portraying Ginsberg before he was Ginsberg. While Daniel Radcliffe might be the one putting the butts in the seats, they will be staying for the amazing supporting (co-lead?) performance of Dane DeHaan. Those who are familiar with his show-stopping performances on HBO’s “In Treatment” or in the film Chronicle should relish that he’s gotten another role to showcase his considerable talents. As Lucian Carr, he’s a vortex sexual charisma, self loathing and violent tendencies. He smolders on-screen when called on to be (often with Radcliffe) and while his character is one that could have easily been romanticized, DeHaan and the screenplay manage to walk the tightrope of fantasizing the character, showing him for the fragile, at war with himself boy, which is who Carr was.
Often the object of all those feelings Carr has is David Kammerer, embodied by Michael C. Hall. Hall has played gay characters before but what I so enjoyed about his performance is how nuanced it is. Kammerer is a part that could have easily devolved into an antagonistic mess, but luckily Hall is gifted enough to shade the performance with enough humanity. Through Hall’s performance, you realize that Krammerer is a man whose sexuality was probably so repressed that the second he found anyone to latch on to, he was completely at their mercy. Unfortunately for Kammerer, he’s picked the wrong guy. It’s fascinating to see Michael C. Hall play a grown man who in this day and age we’d roast endlessly for acting like a lovelorn teen, but who in his time knew no other way to be.
Ben Foster and Jack Huston are great in their much more minimal roles, getting interesting character beats so as not to be totally wasted. It was also great seeing theater vet John Cullum show up as Ginsberg’s Columbia professor and Kyra Sedgwick as Carr’s mother, even if either didn’t get much to do.
There are many more things to praise about this film from the cinematography to the fantastic production design, but suffice to say, this is one of the more complete films screened at Sundance. Krokidas certainly has a winner on his hands with this film and lucky for us, we get to pay witness to his awesome talents as a storyteller.