Monday, December 9, 2013

Kll Your Darlings (review)

                Early in John Krokidas’ part true crime story/part biopic Kill Your Darlings, a pivotal character laments, “I’m only good at beginnings.”

                This is true of many of us; in relationships, in writing, in art.  And it is when we are unable to complete or embrace that we begin to search for easy escape routes.

                Darlings follows a young, closeted Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) and a small band of beat poets including Jack Kerouac, Willliam S. Borroughs (Ben Foster) and Lucien Carr  throughout their early years at Columbia, during their first experiments in beat poetry.  Their endless nights of smoking, Benzedrine and writing binges are soon brought to a sudden and violent end.

                Carr (Dane DeHane) begins as a musing prankster but, like all beginners of art movements, gradually becomes a needy hanger-on.  Hampered by a past relationship with a seeming obsessive, well-read janitor named David (Michael C. Hall, in an eerily predatory performance), he rarely writes and pawns off school assignments on friends.  It is Carr that is left unable to complete work, or embrace wholly his sexual orientation.  

                The less Darlings plays out like a prequel to other films about the Beat Generation, the more assured it becomes.  The lopsided, hushed love triangle between Ginsberg, Carr and David works well, underlined by Carr’s wistful, pre-beat musings by which he can ultimately not live.  Thus it assumes levels of severe melodramatic tragedy.

                Particularly helpful are the performances.  DeHane and Foster sink into their roles without ever approaching simple imitation.  It is only Radcliffe that makes no attempt to imitate save for some spontaneous dancing (Ginsberg, upon first hearing The Beatles, reportedly stood on a lunch counter and danced).  This serves Radcliffe well, as the Potter star slipping into Ginsberg’s iconic lisp would be nothing if not distracting.

                Radcliffe’s performance has been gossiped about due to a gay love scene, but the high-point of his performance comes as he is reciting poetry.  In that brief moment, there is a budding passion sensed in an ill-experienced writer.

                It’s hard to make writing cinematically interesting.  No matter how profound or seminal the work turns out, the audience is still just watching someone sitting in front of a typewriter.  The laziest of biopic staples often include a scene where the famed scribe has an epiphany and outright says the title of his famous song or novel.  Krokidas displays creativity in rare fashion.  Aside from a few out-of-place montages and frenzied, nitrous-induced games of fridge magnet Scrabble, it allows the audience to hear writers speaking of the creative process. 

                Shortly after a murder occurs, Radcliffe transforms into Inspector Ginsberg.  In another film, this could have devolved into gimmickry.  But Krokidas’ uses it as a meditation not just on what happened, but also to question the basic tenets of the Beat Poetry itself.  What does it say of a movement founded upon raw, emotional honesty that one of its founders is dishonest?

                Like many first-time filmmakers, Krokidas’ script (co-written with Austin Bunn) is wrought with superfluous subplots.  Wartime radio broadcasts seem only to serve as chronological awareness.  And the tumultuous relationship between Ginsberg’s mother and father (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh and David Cross) feels biographically unnecessary. 

                Still, Darlings is a more relevant, less by-the-numbers biopic than typically offered on screen.

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