John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings, opening this week in the US, has, presumably inevitably, given the casting (Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg), garnered a welter of publicity, some of which we’ve already featured, but plenty of which we haven’t. So this weekend on the AGP (the Allen Ginsberg Project), a Kill Your Darlings Reviews Digest,
starting with.. A.O.Scott in the New York Times – “Long before Allen Ginsberg became the benevolent bearded Buddha of the counterculture – and one of the most beloved American poets – he was a skinny anxious Columbia freshman who fell in with a group of literary rebels”…”(his) triumph seems like a foregone conclusion – We know who he was, what he became, and how the world changed around him. But in 1944, all of that was far from self-evident, and the risks were enormous and terrifying. The achievement of “Kill Your Darlings” is to give the modern audience a taste of that terror, and also of the thrill and intoxication that went along with it.”..”The emergence of Allen’s poetic vocation”, Scott astutely points out, “is almost a subplot in a story about guilt, lust, friendship and murder. That story is not only, or even primarily Allen’s”..”though Allen may be the film’s protagonist in his own eyes and those of his peers, he is more side-kick than hero – the boy who watches and wonders while more reckless and charismatic friends clam center stage.” – “Kill Your Darlings” is at once a lurid true-crime chronicle and a coming-out story. It’s vision of the past is stereoscopic, affirming Allen’s erotic self-discovery even as it explores the shadows of the closet where he and his friends must dwell. The idea that poetry can give expression to hidden dangerous truths is given a specific content that explains some of the intensity of their commitment to it. The freedom to abandon rhyme and polite diction becomes the vehicle and symbol for other kinds of freedom…”
Claudia Puig in USA Today – “Director John Krokidas gets the Beats. This multi-faceted tale – part murder-mystery, part coming-of-age story, part intellectual disquisition of a socio-literary movement is well-shot, assuredly directed and sharply written by Krokidas and Austin Bunn”..”No straightforward biopic, the ambitious Kill Your Darlings never shies from complicated matters, letting creativity vie with emotional upheaval, and exposing the contradictions and complex facets of human attraction” – “Though the account is occasionally too worshipful, with supporting characters only half-drawn, the complex portrayals of Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) and (Lucien) Carr (Dane DeHaan) keep the story anchored”. DeHaan “smolders with seductive charm”, “the chemistry between him and Radcliffe is evident”. On the central assessment of Radcliffe’s portrayal – “Despite his lack of physical resemblance to the poet [Editorial note – really? – it’s the young Allen, not the more familiar bearded later figure that he’s presenting] Radcliffe’s confident portrayal is notable for its vitality and range. He superbly conveys Ginsberg’s sensitive nature and tortured sexuality”.
This surprise and delighted conviction about Radcliffe’s performance seems to be pretty universal. Ben Schneider, for example, in The Daily Trojan – “Radcliffe seamlessly steps into Ginsberg’s shoes, and once the theater goes dark, any (Harry) Potter comparisons are immediately forgotten in this intense and culturally significant new film. Kill Your Darlings’ climax lives up to the films’ sophisticated take on the Beat lifestyle. The film seeks to make this group of extraordinary young men and their era emotionally accessible to modern viewers. It succeeds handily, thanks to both the actors’ (Radcliffe, in particular) and filmmakers’ willingness to stray from convention – just like the Beats did” Naima Khan puts it even more succinctly here – “Radcliffe’s performance is pretty much flawless”
One trope that appears in a number of reviews is the comparison (always to the latter’s disadvantage) to last year’s On The Road. Elizabeth Weitzman in the New York Daily News – “Kill Your Darlings” does fall victim to the same heightened sense of nostalgia we saw in last year’s adaptation of On The Road (she decries also the “meticulous(ness)” of its composition), “But this movie also has the advantage of a slyer vision and a stronger cast”.”The lead actors bring a passionate authenticity to the most carefully arranged scenarios”. Claudia Puig makes the same point, feeling the movie to be “far more coherent than last year’s aimless On The Road” (and “more sharply focused than 2010’s (James Franco vehicle) “Howl“)
Another entry-point is the comparison between this film and a number of contemporary “superhero” action movies. Mark Olsen, writing in the L.A.Times – “The superhero origin story has become popular in the last few years, so it makes sense that the form might also spread to stories outside the comic-book genre – like Beat Generation writers”. Robin Levin in New Jersey.com – “The new period drama, “Kill Your Darlings”…is consistent with that trend. Only, instead of caped crusaders, the movie centers on Paterson native, Allen Ginsberg, rather than depicting the birth of a masked avenger and the attendant struggle against a super villain, the film reveals the formation of a poet and the internal war that precedes a lifelong burst of self-expression”. “The best way to dig below the surface of an iconic figure”, writes Levin, “is through a return to where it all began”. “Put another way, (Krokidas’ movie) is (Levin’s words again) “a convincing attempt to be Ginsberg’s “Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man”, a story of the end of youth and the birth of a legend”.
If comparisons with James Joyce may be somewhat over-the-top, the dyspepsic snarl of Todd Brown – “Kill Your Darlings Presents A Woefully Clumsy and Shallow Hagiography Of The Beat Generation” (his title says it all!) is clearly way skewered – as is septuagenarian Rex Reed in the New York Observer , who writes – “Nothing in 2013 could be more dated than Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and their close-knit circle of literary wackos that called themselves the Beat Generation back in the 1950’s” (Editorial note – nothing? – not even the author of “Do You Sleep In The Nude?”? ), “but there’s always a new gang of rebels without a cause [sic] making movies about them that nobody wants to see” (we’d respectfully challenge that second assertion).
More measured criticism has appeared. Betsy Sharkey in the L.A.Times finds Radcliffe’s Allen “too proper” and the movie itself, “a movie whose allegiance is constantly divided”. “For all of the often interesting attempts at generating a kind of outrage and invention of its own”, it “feels like it is trying too hard”. “Far too conventional under the trappings, you wish it would howl”.
Glenn Dunks [2016 – no longer on line] makes the same point – “For a film that goes out of its way time and time again to tell the audience that its protagonist was a pioneering wunderkind who helped revolutionize an art form and thought outside the box, John Krokidas’ “Kill Your Darlings” is awfully staid”
This, however, seems, truly, a minority opinion. “This brash, bristling, highly watchable film”, Andrew O’Hehir called it. “Intellectually stimulating and emotionally challenging”, “a definite awards contender”, declares Ben Bliumis in Film-Forward.com. Jeremy Pick in NYU News – “Kill Your Darlings feels fresh. What could have been a History Channel special is actually poetic and involving. With it’s excellent performances and its thought-provoking story..It’s indie filmmaking done right”. Peter Travers in Rolling Stone – “(It’s) a dark beauty of a film that gets in your head and stays there.”