Poetry being potentially one of the more abstruse and slippery of art forms, it can seem extra strange and ill-fitting when the scuttlebutt-hungry biopic machinery gets busy on the subject. Somehow, David Cronenberg did the right-ish thing with Naked Lunch, but that’s a rare exception in a slender filmographic field.
From the Dead Poets Society of cinema lore now comes Kill Your Darlings, a noble but oddly blunted stab at filling in a blank in the gestation period of the Beats. The fabled Beat stars are all there. Our story’s young protagonist Allen Ginsberg (played by Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliffe, in his adult breakout role) is a “new vision” poet radical, bucking the norms at Columbia in the mid-’40s and finding allies in swaggering Jack Kerouac and droll and surreal scatologist William Burroughs. The fateful young triumvirate connives and conspires, at the starting gate of a new poetic attitude and manifesto, and dabbles in petty crime, assorted substances, jazz in Harlem, and a new reality fixation geared at moving past Ogden Nash’s gentility of verse.
But, wait, who’s this fourth wheel, this Pete Best of the Beat pack? There lies the narrative rub: Ginsberg’s bad-boy Columbia classmate Lucien Carr, a troubled and charismatic figure on the fringes, whose story — including criminal twists and gay dalliances in a more homophobic era — was effectively whitewashed out of the Beat story until his death in 2005. Somewhat like Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, director John Krokidas takes some filmic liberties with altered time and psychedelic asides, but it feels forced, an attempt to juice up a mediocre romp with something akin to aesthetics. In turn, we never get the sense of the atmosphere giving rise to any brewing artistic genius in its characters’ heads. It’s not enough when we get tidbits of poetry or self-reflection, as when Ginsberg broods “like other lovers and sad people.”
In the end, Kill Your Darlings feels concurrently flat and sensationalistic, a saucy and salacious little detour in the formative stage of a formidable American poet’s life, pre-Howl. Its main selling points are the revealed footnote to literary history and the rite of passage of a child star getting all growed up on screen and in public, but possibly in the wrong vehicle.