The Beat Generation produced some of the most amazing literary minds of the 20th century, including William S. Burroughs, the author of “Naked Lunch,” Jack Kerouac, most known for his novel “On the Road,” and Allen Ginsburg, author of “Howl,” amongst many other poems. Earlier this year, we got a small taste of their lifestyles in the cinematic adaptation of Kerouac’s novel, which, despite being a rather flat film, was still an interesting glimpse into their lives post-WWII. But how did these great literary figures get to where they were? What were the influences that drove them to create their works? These are the kinds of questions that John Krokidas attempts to answer with his new film, “Kill Your Darlings,” a look at the early years of the Beat Generation.
Primarily focusing on Ginsburg (Daniel Radcliffe), the film starts with him living at home with his poet father and mentally-disturbed mother. He applies to Columbia University and is accepted. It’s not long before he meets the eccentric Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), a student who shares many of the same views on writing as Ginsburg. While Ginsburg’s professor would have him believe that the only good source of literature creation is through imitation of the past, their group “The New Vision” doesn’t hold to conformity.
Meanwhile, we also learn a little about Lucien’s mysterious past. He has switched schools several times over the past few years, and following him every time is an acquaintance of his, David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), the one who writes all of Lucien’s papers for him. The two apparently have a history together, which only becomes more complicated when Lucien’s attention turns to Allen and another writer, Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston).
One of the main reasons that “On the Road” had failed as a film adaptation was that it was basically a random string of events that didn’t tell us much of anything about the characters themselves, a problem that Krokidas seeks to rectify. “Kill Your Darlings” succeeds in that it’s much more of a character piece with a supporting narrative as opposed to the other way around. It’s not so much about the works of Ginsburg, Kerouac, and Burroughs as it is about what started shaping them into the literary giants they became.
Being the son of a poet, Allen was already interested in writing well before he met his colleagues, and also well aware that poetry didn’t need to fit into any standard shapes or forms, using rhyme or pre-set meters, thanks to authors like Walt Whitman. Allen’s professor is practically aghast when he suggests such a thing, leading him to refer to Allen as “Walt Whitman Jr.” When Allen discovers that Lucien and his friends are free thinkers and non-conformists, he takes a liking to them immediately, leading to the formation of their “New Vision.”
When Kerouac enters the picture, we get a little bit about his life experiences up to that point. He’s been a merchant sailor, sailing around the world, and as we all know, it’s traveling that would lead to his literary masterwork. His passion for writing is what grabs Lucien’s attention, which, in turn, changes the direction of the story. From here, it focuses primarily on the relationships between our main characters. Allen begins to feel like he’s being spurned for Kerouac, while the ever-present David feels like he’s being spurned for both of them.
This is also where it begins to delve deeper into the emotional feelings of the characters. Allen has strong feelings for Lucien. Very strong feelings. Meanwhile, David is unwilling to let Lucien just toss him aside, which leads to an unexpected development. It’s not exactly a spoiler what with it really happening this way, but just in case some of you aren’t familiar with the history, I won’t go into what happens late in the film. I will say that it leads to a rather hard decision on Allen’s part, one that has him choosing whether or not to help the friend that has meant so much to him, but also seemed quite ready to push him aside for Kerouac.
The film wouldn’t work half as well as it does without the outstanding performances from Radcliffe and DeHaan. Radcliffe does a great job of distancing himself from his Harry Potter persona with this engaging, emotional turn as Ginsburg. DeHaan, who had already shown great talent in “Chronicle” and “The Place Beyond the Pines,” delivers on the eccentricity that allows us to see why Ginsburg would be drawn to him in the first place. Their portrayals and chemistry are at the heart of the film and are ultimately its driving force.
What we end up with is an intriguing portrait of these renowned artists that examines them more like human beings rather than people going from party to party and indulging in all the alcohol, drugs, and sex that they can. To be fair, there’s some of that in here too, but they’re not allowed to control the story. “Kill Your Darlings” let’s us get to know the characters. It’s not an in-depth exploration of their works or their vices, but of themselves, and for that it’s to be commended.
"Kill Your Darlings" comes to Blu-ray in a 2.40:1, 1080p High Definition transfer that is of mostly excellent quality. There are times when a slight fuzziness is noticeable, but it's not enough to hinder the viewing experience in any way. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is fantastic, giving you crystal clear sound throughout the presentation. Overall, the quality in both departments is above average, leaving little to complain about.
Commentary with Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, John Krokidas, and Austin Bunn: The commentary track here is not particularly good as it's mainly one of those that has the participants saying how great the actors are. In other words, there's not much to be learned from it.
Deleted Scenes: A smattering of cut scenes that are slightly intriguing. Nothing particularly great, but they are worth taking a look at.
Q&A with John Krokidas and Austin Bunn: This is the best featurette on the disc, featuring Krokidas and Bunn answering questions about the film for over an hour, including how the idea came about and their first experiences with the Beat poets. Definitely worth watching for the wealth of info they present.
In Conversation with Daniel Radcliffe and Dane DeHaan: A very brief six-minute interview with Radcliffe and DeHaan discussing how they got their parts and what scenes were the most difficult to shoot. There's not a whole lot here, but it's worth the six minutes of your time.
On the Red Carpet at the Toronto Film Festival: This was a pretty pointless conclusion as it's basically just the cast and crew arriving at the screening, followed by a few brief words from Krokidas as he introduces the movie and the cast. Easily skipable.
With a great selection of special features on top of the intriguing film, this becomes an easily recommendable release to add to your Blu-ray collection. Radcliffe and DeHaan command the film with their fantastic performances, allowing you to get hooked by the story from the very start. Whether your familiar with the great Beat poets or not, "Kill Your Darlings" is a well-done character study and an engaging journey that is worth taking.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.
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