Filmmakers have learnt that a sliver of a notable person’s life is just as effective as a biopic that covers a lifetime. Epic stories still have their place, but a succinct slice of a person’s life can effectively showcase an awakening of greatness as seen in Nowhere Boy, Finding Neverland and The King’s Speech, and now Kill Your Darlings can be added to that list.
Set in the 1940s and based on a true story, university freshman Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), meets Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster) through fellow student Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan). After a brief period of friendship the group is splintered by a murder that changes their outlook on the world.
Gigantic figures in literary history are represented in Kill Your Darlings and director/co-writer, John Krokidas, has gathered an ensemble of superb young actors to do the writers justice. Radcliffe has slowly been washing off the glint of Harry Potter and his performance as a young Ginsberg blasts the memory of the boy wizard off his bones. Krokidas doesn’t present Ginsberg as a fully formed character waiting to become a legend in his youth. Radcliffe plays him as passionate and naive with a big dose of confusion, mainly when it comes to his sexuality. Radcliffe slowly grows into the shoes of the acclaimed writer and you get a feel for the emotional knocks that lead to furious tapping on a typewriter that would later lead to great acclaim. DeHaan is intoxicating as the pretentious Carr who is an expert at manipulation and projects a rebellious outlook to hide his trust fund roots. The way Carr toys with Ginsberg’s emotions is cruel and DeHaan’s Aryan appearance adds to the malice. Foster is almost unrecognisable in voice and appearance as the odd Burroughs who is presented as a fierce intellectual whose mind is warped by various narcotics. Excellently offsetting the literary pomp is Huston who plays Kerouac as a rough and tumble working class guy.
Three legendary writers are on show but Krokidas and his fellow screenwriter, Austin Bunn, keep the focus tightly on Ginsberg. The story is told from Ginsberg’s viewpoint and Krokidas does an excellent job of showing the altered states of the writer’s perceptions of the environment. In one sequence, you see an event play out which is then later replayed in Ginsberg’s mind as he sits to put the inspiration of the moment into text. You get a real sense of the inspiration that paved the way for his talent to be unlocked. Throughout Kill Your Darlings there is a homoerotic yearning between Ginsberg and Carr that’s a little overstated at times when it’s already working effectively in subtly thanks to the fine work of the actors.
As the case with all films about prominent people, we know how the story ends (unless you’re a cave dweller) but it’s often the small beats of their life that tells the most about who they really were as people. Kill Your Darlings is illuminating in examining three writers in their formative years that ends as inspiration strikes; it’s a near perfect origin story.
Cameron Williams - follow Cam on Twitter here: @popcornjunkies