We begin close to the end, with Lucien Carr holding the dying David Kammerer in his arms, in an image befitting an ancient tragedy, as we hear the thoughts of Allen Ginsberg. Moments after, we are at the beginning, with Ginsberg discovering he has been accepted into Columbia.
It is at Columbia that Ginsberg meets the aforementioned Carr, who takes the young poet-to-be under his wing and down the rabbit hole into the heart of the beginning of the Beat Generation, with Lucien even calling the young Ginsberg “Allen in wonderland” during his first night of excess. Radcliffe as Ginsberg and Dane DeHaan as Lucien are utterly superb together, their chemistry is palpable, and they are entirely committed to their roles and each give incendiary performances. The film as a whole is perfectly cast, both from a physical perspective – Jack Huston and Ben Foster are ringers for Kerouac and Burroughs respectively – but the sheer talent of the cast that’s on display, and the level of commitment to portraying these people – Ben Foster, for instance, perfectly embodies the bizarre William Burroughs, even perfectly imitating his rather distinctive voice – that it becomes impossible to imagine any other actors embodying them. The cast is rounded out by Michael C. Hall, along with Jennifer Jason Leigh and David Cross as Ginsberg’s parents; Cross is a particular pleasant surprise, given very few scenes, but also proving himself to be a very capable dramatic actor.
While the murder of Kammerer is perhaps the crux of the film, Kill Your Darlings is about so much more than that. It’s about the young Allen Ginsberg discovering himself and his sexuality, the destructive Lucien Carr and his damaged relationship with the man he kills, and it is about a counterculture (here calling themselves “The New Vision”) finding its voice, even if Kammerer (played superbly by Michael C. Hall, bringing rage and desperation, and along with that some much needed humanity, to a poor and slightly twisted man) calls it “a literary revolution without writing a word.” This literary revolution, which would go on to be the Beat Generation, is captured perfectly through superb use of visual effects, with montages of debauchery, Ginsberg trying to find his creative voice and, through its occasional uses of flashback, the beginning of a distaste for convent ion, something the young writers would want more than anything else.
Its period craft is perfect, from the use of music – its jazz heavy score perfectly fits both the period and its people – to the costumes, even down to the ambience of the world that director John Krokidas and his team create, the tension constantly in the air perfectly suits its wartime setting.
Kill Your Darlings is obsessed with circles. Lucien says that life is an endless cycle of death and rebirth, as does Kammerer, so it seems only fitting to open with the killing of Kammerer, only to return to it later. Its meditations on grander themes – all of which seem to be pairs: life and death, love and hate, creation and destruction – are unfortunately few and far between, because when they are the focus, the script feels stronger, and less like a traditional biopic simply showing us the lives of these men.
The story of a young man and a counterculture in bloom, a meditation on self-destruction and the potential price one may need to pay for a creativity, a cry against traditional values, Kill Your Darlings, with its superb cinematography and production design, as well as one of the best ensembles so far this year, is nothing short of superb. The murder is just the tip of the iceberg.