Review: ‘Kill Your Darlings,’ but phone it in
Those who walked into the theater hoping to walk out with an enlightened appreciation of the significance surrounding these legendary writers and the Beat Movement they inspired were surprised, at best, to find a chick flick noir instead. Set in 1943, “Kill Your Darlings” follows prepubescent Allen Ginsberg (Harry Potter) to Columbia University, where he will realize his full potential as a writer like his father (David Cross) before him. Shortly after his arrival to the university, he is eagerly carried down a road many wayward sons gravitate toward – drugs, booze and crippling lust. Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) is appointed his soul’s sole inspiration, a devilish blue-eyed minx with an insatiable thirst for exploring all things uncharted and “complicated.” A lofty premise for the film’s most alluring character given the pedestrian nature of the content, evoking a sensation not dissimilar to one a high school freshman feels when first dazzled by the concept of Carpe Diem. Flashy and edgy at first, but ultimately a one-dimensional cul-de-sac of empty promises.
The shining performance by DeHaan, who starred in 2012 sci-fi thriller “Chronicle” and more recently in “The Place Beyond the Pines”, brought to the screen a paralyzing sexual force I didn’t know existed. He’s criminally intoxicating as Lucien, the free-spirited Columbia hipster Ginsberg is slave to from the moment he lays eyes on him in the library. He captures all in his wake with his uninhibited sensuousness and riveting songs of unrestrained freedom in creativity. That this exceptional and daring portrayal will likely be grouped in the memory of a movie worth forgetting is tragic.
Allen first sparks Lucien’s interest when he debuts his Walt Whitman chops in one of their early classes together. Later that day, Allen pays him a visit to his dorm room and one verbal performance piece later, Lucien pounces. Why this beautiful, crazed renaissance boy finds taking homely humdrum Allen under his wing at all constructive is left to imagination, but hey. Carpe the Freshman. Ignoring the plea from his clinically mental mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh)to come home that night, an innocent Allen is whiskey’d away to a fateful night that would shape his future as one of America’s most famous poets and leading figures of the Beat Generation. The year that follows ensnares him in drug use, manifestos and the hypnosis of “The New Vision,” which preaches a break-to-build, die-to-live mentality. A scene with Lucien and Allen standing on chairs laughing with rope around their necks is meant to show the heights of their commitment to true art or something, I guess. The effort comes off somewhat, well, choked.
Worth mentioning though is another scene illustrating their pledge to the craft, if you will – a scene several cuts above the rest. The great library heist, which has the troop swapping the sacred display of Columbia history books for a collection from the restricted section, is a delightful dance to the tune of TV on the Radio’s “Wolf Like Me” and implores a stylistic knowhow sorely missed from the rest of the film. It was by far “Darlings” most original and most enjoyable nugget, and the payoff of such directional opportunity sadly quarantined to only those few minutes.
The visionary romance closes a chapter and the appropriately titled movie comes full circle with a fatal fight between Lucien and David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), whose tumultuous infatuation with Lucien proves to be both their undoing. David chases Lucien down after learning of his plan to sail off to Paris with the dapper Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), thus setting the stage for a 1944 crime of passion not known to many. The actual relationship between the two is still debated, though it’s clear Kammerer played a large role in Carr’s emotional (in)stability.
From its opening minutes, “Kill Your Darlings,” John Krokidas’ first feature-length, cloaks itself in a weightiness that never comes to fruition. Personal intrigues are introduced haphazardly and stay unexplained, supposed obsessions underdeveloped, and the genius status these writers hold today goes undeserved in this depiction. Noticeably void of substance, their relentless self-importance is as unfounded as the film’s. That said, the abundance of guilty pleasure gimmicks – SPOILER ALERT! He DOES wind up on that wall! – isn’t offensive enough to write off the whole running time as wasted. What it lacks in meat and potatoes is made up in soap; I think “Darlings” would be right at home as a Lifetime Movie Halloween special. Forget any hopes of mental massaging but save it for a rainy day with Netflix in a couple of months.