When dealing with the subject of young people there’s an awful temptation for filmmakers to produce a feature which is “cool”. The most up to date music coupled with some flashy visuals and hot young stars make an inviting prospect for audiences which normally wouldn’t have any interest in the film’s subject. Kill Your Darlings uses these techniques to explore the youth of American poet Allen Ginsberg with mixed results.
The movie’s greatest success is Daniel Radcliffe as Ginsberg, with the actor finally proving that he’s ready to move beyond his typecast Harry Potter image and take on more adult roles. Beyond that, the film is fast, fun and a great ride. Not once is there a moment where the flow is broken, keeping the action fluid and the audience engaged.
These strengths, however, are directly connected to the film’s weaknesses. For a film detailing the exploits of a poet, there is a noticeable lack of contemplation. Apart from a couple of manipulative “this is how you should feel” set piece moments of Hollywood patronisation, there simply isn’t time to think about the issues brought up in the film. It’s too interested in being fun to hold any real weight. An early example of this is seen when Ginsberg suddenly transforms from an upright bookworm to a reckless drug user over little more than the course of a montage. While such an approach prevents the narrative from becoming bogged down, the film sometimes feels rather shallow. This shallowness also characterises the setting of the piece. Although set over the course of the Second World War, the film lacks a authentic period feel. The visual style and choice of music make the film seem too modern to have a lasting effect. Enjoyable now for being contemporary, it is more than possible that the film will date poorly and quickly fade into obscurity.
This may, however, be the point. Kill Your Darlings tells the story of a group of young men who lived their lives too recklessly and didn’t care enough for the consequences. The characters are too busy having fun to realise the harm they are doing and the film may be deliberately aping their behaviour. This would at least explain the decision to portray the thoroughly unlikeable Lucien Barr (Dane DeHaan) as a hero for the majority of the film. If viewed from this perspective, the film itself is choosing to ignore his empty pretentiousness and buy into his mythic image as the other characters do. Neither film nor characters care about the meaning behind the events portrayed. Both are too interested in being modern, just as the leads wish to constantly live in the moment.
Or it could simply be a fun but flimsy piece of popcorn entertainment with a rather good final act. That’s the puzzle. Either way I would probably recommend it. There’s an energy to the proceedings that is difficult to ignore. Whether it is truly a postmodern piece of meta-cinema or not is really a matter of opinion and this ambiguity makes the film far more interesting. The only viewer who definitely won’t get anything out of this is one looking for a straight and serious take on the life of Ginsberg, because Kill Your Darlings simply isn’t that. It’s either a flawed masterpiece or a masterful piece of rubbish and even if you don’t enjoy the film, you will at least enjoy debating which one it is.