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Kill Your Darlings (A Movie Review)

Updated: Oct 19, 2020

Kill Your Darlings


Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Michael C. Hall, Jack Huston, Ben Foster, Jennifer Jason Leigh, David Cross, Elizabeth Olsen, John Cullum, Brenda Wehle, Erin Darke, Craig Chester, Lenore Harris, Mark Ethan and Zach Appelman.

Screenplay by John Krokidas and Austin Bunn.

Directed by John Krokidas.

Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.  103 minutes.  Rated R.

Kill Your Darlings takes a look at a long-forgotten crime which is mostly of interest because three future literary legends were on the periphery of the story.  At Columbia University, young men who would grow to be beat legends Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William Burroughs (Ben Foster) were involved in – though none of them directly contributed to – the 1944 murder of a gay former professor.  However, the three future writers knew and spent much time with both the killer and the victim, and while they may not have been there for the actual misdeed, they were intimately involved in the conflicts which led to the killing.

Therefore, a footnote in New York crime history became a story of great interest to the world of literature, just by chance.  Even Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), the confessed killer (who claimed he was acting in self-defense), while not a famed writer, became hugely influential in the publishing world – spending almost 50 years at United Press International, eventually rising to head of the general news desk at UPI.  And while Lucien never became a well-known writer, his son Caleb Carr wrote several books, including the 1994 best-seller The Alienist.

Would this story have been told if not for the fact that the people involved later became quite famous?  Probably not.

Would it have even been worthy of telling had not been for the fact that it sheds a little light into the worlds of three men who later became iconic?  (Very little light in the cases of two characters.)  Perhaps.

Kill Your Darlings is a somewhat tragic story of a very charismatic if unfeeling and selfish young man, and the pathetic older man who loved him inappropriately.  It is an intriguing, sad story, but the close trajectory of future stars probably is the main sizzle to the story, though Kill Your Darlings also hits on such hot buttons (particularly for the 1940s) as homosexuality, pedophilia, mental illness, alcoholism and drugs, attempted suicide, casual sex and be-bop jazz.

It is a snapshot of the first stirrings of a cultural revolution, mostly centered around the areas where the changes were first truly appearing: uptown Manhattan and Greenwich Village.

Truth to be told, the sociological import of Kill Your Darlings sometimes overwhelms the more traditional criminal narrative.  It’s almost like the crime which is supposedly the raison d’être for this story sometimes gets overwhelmed by its secondary aspects.

And while seeing these famous characters as unformed young men does give you a certain amount of perspective into them, I’m not sure any of it is exactly earthshaking.  For example, I had no idea that Ginsberg was either gay or at least experimented with it in college.  Then again, I never really cared or gave it much thought.  Did that really effect the writing of Howl? Beats me. 

I also never quite realized that Burroughs was a trust fund baby whose parents were constantly bailing him out of trouble.  We see a certain amount of the drug-interest which would eventually lead to The Naked Lunch, but the effete dandy on display here does not jibe with my image of the author, though again I claim no great knowledge of him.  And Kerouac just comes off as a tough merchant marine whose only real defining attributes are brutishness and a total disregard for his girlfriend.

Honestly, the most interesting character is Carr.  He may be a user, but he is seductive and sure of himself.  The man that he kills, on the other hand, is a pathetic lovesick sap.

The acting is mostly spot on here and the film’s production is lovely, but in the long run, I’m not sure that it is a story that needed to be told.  The proof is probably the simple fact that three great writers experienced it, and none of them felt it worthy of revisiting.  While Kill Your Darlings has some interest as a period piece, for the most part I have to agree with them.

Ken Sharp

Copyright ©2013 All rights reserved. Posted: October 18, 2013.

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