“On the Road,” “Howl,” “Big Sur” — for some of us, the movies about Beat poets we’ve seen in the last five years outnumber the Beat poems we’ve read in our lives. But the latest, “Kill Your Darlings,” covers a lesser-known aspect of the Beat Generation: the time that one of them killed a guy.
Part biopic, part coming-of-age story, and part thriller, “Kill Your Darlings” is primarily about Allen Ginsberg, the poet’s son from New Jersey whose friendships with the likes of Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs at Columbia University in the 1940s led to a new movement in American poetry and literature. Ginsberg is played here by Daniel Radcliffe as a timid, naive young man whose eyes are opened by Kerouac (Jack Huston) and Burroughs (Ben Foster), but more by Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), whose name isn’t nearly as familiar to us now but who had a profound influence on Ginsberg.
In the film, Lucien is prototypically witty and urbane, fashionable and erudite, rebellious toward authority and a proponent of, ah, pharmacological mood enhancement. He lives down the hall at Columbia from Allen, who’s captivated by his devil-may-care attitude and quickly falls under his spell. It’s through Lucien that Allen meets the other key players, who, like him, have literary aspirations but feel stifled by the restrictions of meter and rhyme being taught to them by their professors.
Encouraging their rebellion is one David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), an enigmatic sophisticate who hosts well-attended intellectual parties at his apartment and is evidently in love with Lucien Carr. Lucien’s own sexuality is ambiguous, but as a master manipulator he’s happy to give David what he wants in exchange for David writing his papers for him. Allen, whose sexuality isn’t ambiguous but who hasn’t fully realized it yet, starts to develop similarly fond feelings toward his exciting new friend.
The film, a long-gestating passion project by writer-director John Krokidas, opens with a flash-forward of Lucien in jail and a panicked Allen Ginsberg visiting him. So we know the stakes will eventually be high, and we can guess who the involved parties will be. But most of the movie is focused on Allen’s personal journey, his “kill your darlings” process of casting off one’s preconceived notions about one’s art and oneself. In that regard, the film is respectable if not excellent, telling Ginsberg’s story without really capturing the Beat movement’s origins. Some elements, like Allen’s issues with his parents (played by David Cross and Jennifer Jason Leigh), feel like they’re included out of biographical obligation. In other instances, we’re shorted — I’d love to have seen more of Ben Foster’s William Burroughs, for example, who’s introduced to us breathing nitrous oxide at a party, lying in an empty bathtub in a three-piece suit.
Radcliffe, eager to prove he can do more than cast spells and fight Voldemort, has gotten a lot of the film’s pre-release attention, partly because he’s playing a real person and partly because that real person was gay. Radcliffe is good, bringing vitality to Ginsberg’s tentative, gradual discovery of himself, and fully committed to what the role requires of him. But the real standout is Dane DeHaan (“Chronicle,” “The Place Beyond the Pines”), a talented actor with an androgynously handsome face that can be boyish and intense at the same time. Lucien is a fascinating character, a user and a schemer who wields his charm like a weapon. You can see why David Kammerer and Allen Ginsberg would be drawn to him, and why they might hate him, too.
Some of Krokidas’ metaphors are heavy-handed, none more so than when images of a fatal stabbing are intercut with a scene of someone having anal sex for the first time. But his overall touch is steady as he tells this engaging story about bright, inexperienced artists working through their tumultuous formative years.
B- (1 hr., 44 min.; )
Originally published at About.com.