The Sundance Film Festival arrives, like clockwork, at the beginning of each year to inject a fresh bit of hope into our outlook for the upcoming year in film. While we tire of the year’s awards season crop, the system begins to harvest its plants to bloom over the months to come. The festival is great at providing two specific kinds of films: discoveries of major new talents from completely out of the blue, and surprising indie turns from well-known stars. (Without said talent, the films would never be able to receive any financing.)
“Kill Your Darlings” falls into the latter camp. This 2013 film was a big step in Daniel Radcliffe’s career reinvention – or at least a full-fledged turn of the page – from only being recognized as Harry Potter. He stars as a young Allen Ginsberg, far before “Howl” brought the beat poet into censorship as well as the national spotlight.
John Krokidas’ debut feature is so much more than just a showcase for Radcliffe’s talent, though. It is my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” because it tells a compelling, human story that just happens to be about a renowned poet. His script, co-written with Austin Bunn, never veers into the realm of becoming a portrait gallery for the nascent counterculture movement. Sure, there are appearances by William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), but the script never loses sight of who they are as people.
“Kill Your Darlings” does not feel the need for reverence to the towering legacy of a figure, an advantage the film is able to possess in part because it takes place before Ginsberg and his pals went supernova. The plot begins with a young Ginsberg entering Columbia in 1943, where he quickly bristles with the established order and the canonized poets. Radcliffe’s performance teems with self-discovery and fully realizes the awakening of an artist; perhaps there is a meta connection responsible for
Yet Radcliffe is not even the movie’s scene-stealing performer. That honor goes to Dane DeHaan, star of “Chronicle” and “The Place Beyond the Pines,” who has really begun to build a formidable résumé. He plays livewire Lucien Carr, an obstreperous rebel. He takes Ginsberg from a student merely curious about the iconoclasm of Walt Whitman into a full bohemian beatnik. Lucien also lures him into a love triangle with an older outsider, Michael C. Hall’s David Kammerer, that turns bloody and forces Ginsberg to make a tough ethical decision.
“Kill Your Darlings” is part biopic, part drama, part thriller, and part exploration of an artistic movement’s birth pangs. All these elements cohere marvelously into one wholly satisfying film. It is one heck of a debut for Krokidas, and it makes a great case for Radcliffe and DeHaan to receive some meaty roles in the feature.