Oscar season is always a time for moviegoer euphoria and repugnance. Yes, we get to see a bunch of fab movies, but we’re also aware of which films will end up getting more (and perhaps undeserved) Academy attention thanks to star power and studio campaigning. For every warranted triumph like 12 Years a Slave, there are underdog crowd-pleasers like Enough Said, Philomena, and my pick for the true underrated gem of the year, Kill Your Darlings.
With a charming Daniel Radcliffe as a young Allen Ginsberg during his days at Columbia, the film explores the beginnings of the Beat movement with Ginsberg’s pals Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster), and a defiant beaut named Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), who murders longtime acquaintance David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) under mysterious circumstances. The movie is as much a bildungsroman of Ginsberg as it is a pulpy caper, and it even manages to include some no-nonsense gayness too. If any movie deserves a comeback story, it’s this one. Here are five reasons we’d like to see director John Krokidas’ debut scare up multiple nominations.
1. It’s beautiful to look at.
Kill Your Darlings manages to be a gorgeous mid-century period piece without ever feeling like a self-conscious exercise in Mad Men glamor. The vaulted ceilings and immaculate decor of Columbia’s library? Stunning. The creamy sweater sets of Ginsberg and his cronies? Adorable and apropos. The golden glow of the film? Adds to the film’s sense of nostalgia and adolescent wonderment. This stands in sharp contrast to, say, J. Edgar, a movie that represented a similar era but felt claustrophobic and tainted in its heavily gilded look. You can’t even breathe in that movie, but you could probably live in Kill Your Darlings and learn something too.
2. It improves upon recent fare like My Week With Marilyn by having something to say about its famous characters.
We’ve been inundated with movies about 20th century celebrities in recent years. My Week With Marilyn revisited a humdrum ’50s moment for the tragic Norma Jean and “taught” us, “Hey! She’s kind of a mess!” The Iron Lady merely regurgitated famous scenes from Margaret Thatcher’s life and added, “But remember! She had Alzheimer’s!” Kill Your Darlings takes on Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac and infuses their lives with smart-aleck zeal and meaningful in-fighting, not to mention their personal muses. We believe Ginsberg’s naiveté. We believe Burroughs’ drollness. In Kerouac’s domestic spats, we can see the beginnings of the (celebrated) self-importance and (arguably engrossing) immaturity of On the Road. If the Academy still wants to give props to celebrity biopics, it’s best to skip over clear disasters like Diana and award one of the few in the genre that both vivifies and humanizes its subjects. Kill Your Darlings isn’t just a cavalcade of stars; it dangerously raises a magnifying glass to the spark that draws burgeoning intellectuals together.
3. It weaves together different types of queer stories.
Allen Ginsberg and Lucien Carr are swaggering drinking buddies together, but they go through much different kinds of queer self-realization. Ginsberg is nervous as he discovers his affection for Carr, and Carr seems to both relish in and thwart Ginsberg’s emotions. When they finally share a tender moment, Ginsberg eases into self-confidence while Carr seems as lost in his blustery self-indulgent streak as ever. Is Lucien even gay? Later, when we find out the circumstances surrounding Kammerer’s death, we’re forced to rethink the truth behind Lucien’s Dead Poets Society-like showmanship. Answers aren’t immediately clear, and that feels right in the case of this flamboyant, but delusional character. In the case of Ginsberg, we’re treated to frantic masturbation and actual experimentation. Which is always nice.
4. A nomination for Dane DeHaan would redeem last year’s snub for Ezra Miller in Perks of Being a Wallflower.
If you saw The Perks of Being a Wallflower last year, you almost certainly watched awestruck as Ezra Miller stole every scene as the rebellious and glib Patrick, a high-schooler who rocks out to Rocky Horror Picture Show screenings and impishly owns his outsider status. Such a one-of-a-kind role, and one that should’ve been rewarded with an Oscar nomination in an Oscar year heavy on hardened, masculine male roles. As Lucien in Kill Your Darlings, Dane DeHaan stomps on tables at the library, compensates for writerly shortcomings with youthful gusto, and is always hatching ideas to upend the status quo. He’s spellbinding, and I consider his role a historical cousin to Patrick, who’d surely be drawn in by Lucien’s obsession with W.B. Yeats, Walt Whitman, and Harlem nightclubs.
5. Dane DeHaan’s role would normally be a perfect Oscar contender — for women.
Vanessa Redgrave in Julia. Geena Davis in The Accidental Tourist. Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted. Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. They’re all Best Supporting Actress winners, they’re all playing off-kilter women who absolutely bewitch you with beauty and wild nerve. The camera loves them, and they love to excite or subvert with unexpected intensity or quirkiness. Though this characterization is a motif among Best Supporting Actress, we rarely see this charisma with Best Supporting Actors, who routinely play blowhards, psychopaths, firebrands, and weirdos. It’s never their job to be “likable,” let alone likable, human, slightly strange, and a bit aloof, as all of these female winners were. Dane DeHaan, meanwhile, turns in precisely the kind of performance that would normally net a Best Supporting Actress statuette: He is absolutely striking — in a Jude Law-in-Talented Mr. Ripley way — in every frame of Kill Your Darlings. His face exists somewhere in a complicated Venn diagram involving young Brad Pitt, young Leonardo DiCaprio, and Tabatha Coffey. And if you thought he ruled in Chronicle, you’ll find him even more magnetic here.
Lucien is inspired and arrogant, yet his major flaws unfold subtly throughout the movie. He is ultimately tragic, yet his presence is such a lightning force of the film. His vulnerability shocks us since his pretentious airs have been so pronounced from the minute he steps foot — rather heavily — on screen. And DeHaan just nails his Ivy League bravado, not to mention the confusion and passion of his surprising lip-lock scene with Allen. A totally engrossing moment. Come on, Oscar. Give it up for the beautiful-and-tragic dudes in the world too.
6. (Unofficial) Could DanRad be cuter?