A college-age Allen Ginsberg discovers sex, jazz, drugs, his rebel spirit and the dark side of a friend in “Kill Your Darlings,” a period drama exploring the formative years of some of the Beat era’s top literary folks. Focus on character and a steady delivery of interesting, complicated relationships make up for bumpy steerage in this feature debut of writer-director John Krokidas.
Superior to “Howl” and “On the Road” as recent Beat Generation dramas go, the film takes the form of a literary biopic, a coming-of-age tale and a noirish melodrama complete with murder. The story centers around a tragic incident in New York City in 1944. Daniel Radcliffe plays Ginsberg, a naive, gay New Jersey-bred newcomer at Columbia University. During a starchy campus tour, Ginsberg becomes smitten with Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), a sexually ambiguous bad boy standing on a library table and reciting a scandalous Henry Miller passage.
When Ginsberg challenges a professor’s rhyme-and-meter lesson, Carr is mutually impressed. A friendship forms, and Ginsberg is soon frequenting jazz clubs, experimenting with drugs and associating with fellow rebels William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston).
The group dedicates itself to a nonconformist, courageous, spontaneous brand of writing, which it calls the New Vision. The Beat culture is born.
Two triangles complicate the picture. Carr becomes increasingly friendly with Kerouac, causing Ginsberg to feel excluded. David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), Carr’s former mentor and suitor, maintains a tangled hold on Carr, who, enjoying buddydom with Ginsberg, wants Kammerer out of his life, escalating into a situation filled with obsession and murder that affects all the central characters.
Krokidas juggles numerous themes and ideas, with sometimes rocky results. The Kammerer element doesn’t smoothly fold into the story, and Krokidas and co-writer Austin Bunn fail to build suspense around it. Montages amount to shallow clutter. Women are meager presences.
Nonetheless, the film is an absorbing personal drama, an informative look at a literary movement’s genesis, a lesson in gay history and a moving celebration of the creative spirit.
Radcliffe, echoing James Franco in “Howl,” isn’t perfectly convincing as Ginsberg, but he is believable as a gay, Jewish New Jersey kid. His earnest quality (shades of Hogwarts), proves fitting for the character, the movie’s moral center.
DeHaan steals the movie as the magnetic, machinating and clearly troubled Carr. He makes viewers believe that Ginsberg, Kerouac and Kammerer could, in various ways, all fall for him.
Kill Your Darlings
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Michael C. Hall, Ben Foster
Written by John Krokidas, Austin Bunn
Directed by John Krokidas
Running time 1 hour, 44 minutes