PARK CITY - The past few years have seen a number of films focus on the writers of the Beat Generation and iconic writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Keroac. This year's entry to the growing genre is John Krokidas' "Kill Your Darlings" which debuted at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival Friday afternoon and opens the door to a historical incident which had remain mostly unchronicled for almost 60 years.
Previously, the most prominent narrative attempt exploring the life of Ginsberg was 2010's "Howl" which featured James Franco as the noted poet and centered mostly on the writer's twentysomething years as he crafted his landmark work of the same title. "Darlings" also has moments where it tries to visualize Ginsberg's creative process, but it takes place at a much earlier point in his life and this time around he's played by Daniel Radcliffe.
It's 1943 and Ginsberg enters Columbia University as a talented, but shy freshman. While he has no interest in socializing with his intolerant roommate, Ginsberg instantly becomes intrigued by Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), a charismatic classmate who prophetizes radical thinking and inducts him into an eclectic circle of friends in the East Village including David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) and future literary star William Burroughs (Ben Foster). As the semester passes, Carr and Burroughs supply Ginsberg new drugs to spur his creativity and the trio begin to foster ideas of a new literary movement. At the same time, Ginsberg feelings for Carr grow, but is the object of his affections involved in a relationship with the significantly older Kammerer or not?
It goes without saying that Ginsberg is a figure any filmmaker would have difficulty trying to accurately depict and, strikingly, the film frames Carr as the true enigma. Carr hungers for big ideas and yet has Kammerer (a former college professor) write his homework. While he barely shows any interest in women, Carr seems increasingly unnerved with Kammerer's constant presence and can't verbalize his feelings -- if any -- for a doting Ginsberg. The situation becomes more dramatic once Carr's friendship with fellow Columbia student Kerouac ("Boardwalk Empire's" Jack Huston) is revealed. Kodikas obviously saw DeHaan as being able to portray Carr as a 1940's embodiment of Shakespeare's literary minstrel Pan creating drama and chaos and it works, to a degree. Kodikas and co-screenwriter Austin Bunn withhold some important details of Carr's past for for the third act and it's hard to believe these scenes are historically accurate. Making these facts known earlier might have made the picture's grizzly climax have the emotional impact Kodikas is really looking for. Instead, the film suffers from a few too many endings as the filmmakers try to wrap everything up just a bit too neatly.
The most impressive and noteworthy aspects of "Darlings" is Kodikas' stylish cinematic eye and his collaboration with cinematographer Reed Morano. Along with production designer Stephen H. Carter, the trio have fashioned a remarkable and polished world for "Darlings'" characters to interact in. The film is also Kodikas' feature directorial debut and he takes advantage of his opportunity making some bold choices in a repetitive rewinding footage motif and mixing period and contemporary music. He also manages to distinctively avoid cliche's staging his character's drug induced writing binges which is no easy feat. The main troupe of Radcliffe, DeHaan, Hall and Foster are strong (Hall gives the best turn of the four), but it's the secondary players including a terrific Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyra Sedgwick and David Cross that provide the gravity for Kodikas' rich canvas.
Obviously his most significant dramatic role since the "Harry Potter" franchise ended, Radcliffe is a much better Ginsberg than Franco ever was even if he can't 100% nail a New York Metro accent. Radcliffe does, however, a superb job of depicting Ginsberg's adoration for Carr as well as his eventual rejection. And as expected for an actor who made waves with his performance on the stage in "Equus," he shows no fear in appearing in an explicit gay sex scene or making out with DeHaan's Carr.
As an acquisition target, "Darlings" isn't an easy sell. It's not exactly a year-end awards player, but may be too niche for a crossover late spring or summer release. It doesn't help that the similarly themed "On the Road" couldn't muster strong art house business either. Still, Radcliffe's involvement, expected positive reviews and a recognizable cast assure a national if not limited release.
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