Kill Your Darlings (2013) – Review

Biopics already have their hands full. Dealing with the life history of one human being, notorious for one thing or another is hard enough. Encompassing, as it must, a considered, well researched detail about the subject. Just the kind person they are, how they look and their mannerisms alone is not enough. There needs to be a narrative explaining why they are, not just simply who.


It also aids the audience, who may or may not be familiar with the subject already, to provide a bit of grounding. For the uninitiated, the biography of someone you have never heard of, regardless of their deeds, is still no more than a story about a stranger you’ve never met. To have an opinion to be confounded or confirmed is half the fun, after all.

Imagine then the problem delivering a story that attempts to hurl the young lives of at least three literary luminaries at an audience that are going to have trouble dealing with just the one, and that’s assuming they’re familiar with any of them to begin with. Character development is going to be a handful, for starters.

These inevitable truths will mean a vastly reduced audience, or at least a normal sized, largely pissed off audience, most of whom are left wondering what they’re watching and why. And this is one of the joys of cinema. Making films that don’t appeal to everyone may not be financially sound, but thank god people still do it anyway. Imagine a cinematic landscape of nothing but Marvel sequels?

So three cheers for artisitic intent then. But still, is this project not just a little bit too ambitious for its own good? Attempting to cover the early lives of the founders of the Beat Generation seems like an inarguable folly. Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs? Really? In under two hours? This may well have been suited to a television mini-series, but squeezed, sardine-like, into this running time just seems ill-advised.

The film focuses much of its time on Alan Ginsberg (Harry Potter, sorry Daniel Radcliffe) who gets awarded a place at the renowned Columbia University, escaping the clutches of his needy mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh, great) and making the acquaintance of Lucien Carr (an ‘on-point’ Dane DeHaan), William Burroughs (Ben Foster, very believable), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and general naysayer Professor David Kammerer (Michael C Hall). Also found lurking in this ode to the good times can be found Elizabeth Olsen and David Cross who both give fine, albeit brief, performances.

Much of the film dispenses with the aritistic forays of this group that were to spawn what many have a called the greatest cultural shift in American literature, ushering in the bohemian age of the hippy, promoting and new philosophies that were to alter the perspective of every young American. At times, the film comes across as nothing more than the adventures in university idiocy that are found in the usual low-brow, tasteless and bawdy comedies of the late nineties and early noughties.

This approach does little to convince the viewer of the authenticity of the main protaganists and affirms the notion that young adults do indeed believe the world revovles around them and not the other way around. Gather a group of undeniably talented young and gifted people together in a room for a few hoours and one of two things will probably happen. Either some astounding collaboration will occur, or what is just as likely, a chaos of intellectual narcissism will ensue, ending in a fit of pique, or worse.

Put simply, Kill Your Darlings is an admirable attempt at bringing to the screen the feelings of idealism and hedonism that must have been witnessed at a time of incendiary creativity amongst the group of writers featured. It fails, if we’re honest, to get that feeling across, due to a lack of engagement with the characters that are fleshed out too thinly for the novice to appreciate and the insistence to give their literary feats a back seat in the story of Ginsberg’s perceived descent into a world that he may well have been better off leaving well alone.

Audiences will already be familiar with raucous alcohol and drug abuse and its potentially beneficial creative side-effects, but this does not prove these men were enlightened, just that they were dependent on something other than their own already vivid imaginations to allow their artistic visions to find the light of day. As a biopic, this was quite disappointing, as I expected something more sober, more polished and, despite the ‘Based On True Events’ emblazoned across the screen at the outset, something also a little more measured and realistic.

Truly, if this was an honest reflection of the zeitgeist, you probably wouldn’t even remember their names. Not in-depth enough for real enthusiasts but too long to dwell on what little there is actually delivered.

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2 comments

  1. Good review Steve. I’m not a fan of these historical-figures, but the movie did them enough justice in just showing them as humans, nothing else.

    1. Thanks for the comments and you’re quite right. They did seem all too human, which may upset some devotees of their creativity. There never appeared to be too much ‘genius at work’ going on.

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