Of the three movies about the Beat Generation released in theaters this past year, the one worth seeing is Kill Your Darlings.
Daniel Radcliffe stars as Allen Ginsberg in what at first seems a typical biopic: young Ginsberg at home in Patterson, New Jersey; young Ginsberg at college, presumably where he writes the poems Americans will be assigned to read in school for decades to come; Ginsberg falling in with “the wrong crowd” that turns out to be the right crowd when it’s Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs.
Darlings doesn’t steer into the dry world of the typical biopic, thanks to the script by Austin Bunn and director John Krokidas. We know the Beats aimed for freedom from convention in their work, and similar biopics (such as last year’s On the Road and this year’s Big Sur) take that to mean these movies should be rambling journeys where not much happens. If there has to be a story, it’s that Life is The Story. In theory, a cool philosophy, but one that makes for boring movies.
No, Darlings aims for a smaller story: the story of Allen as he falls into an emotionally abusive relationship. What’s refreshing about this biopic is that Allen’s problems aren’t Allen Ginsberg problems—they’re just problems. Allen has a sick mother he feels he should care for; Allen wants to distinguish himself as a writer; Allen wants to fit in with his new friends; Allen and his friends vandalize a library with a stupid college prank. Darlings becomes an extraordinary story about the Beat Generation because it shows how conventional Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs were and how those conventions suffocated the lives they wanted to live.
Fueling the movie are performances from Radcliffe as Allen and Dane DeHaan (Chronicle and the upcoming Amazing Spider-Man 2 as Harry Osborn) as Lucien. The relationship that dominates Darlings wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the burning intensity between these two actors. Radcliffe’s Allen watches the world around him with quiet intelligence and when he speaks, it’s snide, desperate, sarcastic, clueless, jealous, and a thousand things. DeHaan’s Lucien also watches the world around him, but Lucien is a predator: he keeps track of others’ weaknesses, and lashes out when anyone approaches close enough to find his own. Together, Allen and Lucien are magnetic opposites desperately trying to occupy the same space: Allen so he can be with Lucien and Lucien so he can tear Allen apart, piece by piece.
While it’s the story that makes Kill Your Darlings stand out among other biopics, the performances make the movie memorable. Alongside Radcliffe and DeHaan, there’s Michael C. Hall as Lucien’s pompous and vulnerable sometimes-lover, Jack Huston (Boardwalk Empire) as Kerouac, and Ben Foster as Burroughs. They portray their historical characters with real depth and isn’t that the reason for biopics in the first place?