As unique a coming-of-age story as you’ll see all year, Kill Your Darlings recounts the true story of how Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac were involved with a murder and offers insight into how the event altered their worldviews enough to impact the wildly influential writing they would do in the future. With a daring directorial approach that elevates the film above your standard coming-of-age tale, Darlings is a multi-tiered success, one of the best films of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
The boy who longs to break out of his most famous character, Daniel Radcliffe, stars as a young Ginsberg in his first year at Columbia College. Eager to please his poet father (a surprising dramatic turn from David Cross) and mentally troubled mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), he heads off to the prestigious school eager to learn.
On his first day, Ginsberg meets the gregarious and profane Lucien Carr (Dane Dehaan) and everything changes. Carr encourages Ginsberg to discard the literary canon of his professors and the two vow to lead a revolution of thought, pulling previously considered lewd texts from the dark and approaching their own writing with less concern for structure, rhyme or the other tenets taught in school. Helping them on their noble quest is a nitrous-huffing William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster) and a more somber Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), a man who preaches that life must be lived in order to write about it. It’s a literary worldview that considers the very act of writing action, not reflection, and it makes a spectacular background for what becomes a very dark tale of murder.
Lucien has an older boyfriend named David (Michael C. Hall), who it appears has been supporting him but is also introduced as a drain on Carr’s spirit. He belittles him and essentially stalks him as it is revealed Carr has moved from town to town as David has followed. David comes to represent the old-school that the boys have been so eager to discard. As he becomes increasingly meddlesome in the lives of the men who would become literary icons to millions, David becomes more of a problem.
It’s difficult to recap Kill Your Darlings without making it sound clichéd. While it may read as a work that could feel overly familiar, debut director John Krokidas’ approach is anything but stale. Darlings feels so alive in every frame, from the clever, crisp dialogue to the smart plotting to the tonal shifts that may seem like imbalances to some critics but feel like jazz music riffs to this one. The movie zigs when you expect to zag, inserting a scene where the boys stop time in a club or using modern music like TV on the Radio and The Libertines in simply brilliant ways to reinforce the sense that these are boys breaking the molds of what they’ve been taught. Why use period music for that? Why not use a progressive band like TV on the Radio?
As much as I adore the little beats hit by Foster, Huston, and Hall (who does his best film work to date here after killing on TV for so many years), Kill Your Darlings belongs to Dane Dehaan. He mesmerizes in much the same way that a young Leonardo DiCaprio or River Phoenix held your gaze so completely that you knew they would be future stars. Dehaan is perfect here, finding the right balance of charm and true sadness in this incredibly complex character. Radcliffe works as well, shedding his Potter image in ways that young Rowling fans won’t be able to see for years, but the film belongs to Dehaan. (While we’re on performance, I wish Krokidas hadn’t populated the supporting cast with recognizable faces like Kyra Sedgwick & Elizabeth Olsen since their parts are so small, they feel wasted in them.)
Kill Your Darlings is about people trying to destroy the old to build the new and realizing that even that process leaves some debris that needs to be addressed. It is an incredibly smart film that crackles with the wit of the literary luminaries it chronicles. Most of all, it cements what most of us thought about Dane Dehaan after his strong work in Chronicle and announces the arrival of a true talent in John Krokidas.