Daniel Radcliffe takes another giant step away from Hogwarts with his portrayal of a young Allen Ginsberg drawn into a murderous love triangle at the dawn of the Beat Generation.
Kill Your Darlings opens in 1944, when young and socially-awkward Ginsberg, freshly graduated from high school in New Jersey, receives notice that he’s been accepted at New York’s Columbia University. He’s thrilled for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which is to escape his tension-filled home life. His mother suffers from paranoid delusions which his uptight schoolteacher father has no tolerance for, and Allen is tired of playing the intermediary.
At school, he is at once drawn to the flashy young radical Lucien (“Lu”) Carr (Dane DeHaan), whose delight in upsetting the system appeals to Ginsberg–not to mention his blonde, pale-eyed beauty, which awakens hitherto unacknowledged desires. Soon Allen is following Lu around like a puppy and being drawn into his odd circle of friends, which includes the nitrous oxide-huffing son of a wealthy family, William Burroughs (Ben Foster), and David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), a bearded bohemian who is also head-over-heels in love with young Lu, having followed him from city to city and resentful of Allen’s intrusion into their lives.
Lu is an expert at bending people to his will, and he wants Allen (whom he nicknames Ginsy) to join him, Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) in a radical literary movement which involves doing a lot of drugs and destroying the old to give rise to the new. Allen is putty in his hands, and soon they’re committing minor acts of rebellion like breaking into the university library to replace the first edition volumes under glass with pornography.
Scheming Lu also pits his rivals against each other to get what he wants from them both: high-minded manifestos from Allen and school papers from David. But when David’s obsession reaches frightening new heights, Lu kills him in a panic and sinks the body in the Hudson River. Then he does what he always does, turning to his circle of friends for help.
Radcliffe is impressive as Ginsberg, who is almost a bystander in the story were it not for the fact that his sexual and intellectual awakenings are key points of the story. DeHaan is ideally cast as the seductive Lu. Foster has Burroughs’ nervous, weedy voice down pat and Huston is a sprawling Kerouac. No stranger to obsessive roles, Hall’s portrayal of Kammerer is rather sympathetic; evidently Lu’s real-life stalker was much creepier.
Some may complain about the depiction of women in the film, but that’s really the point–this is a man’s world, sexually and otherwise. Here, females are burdensome or unnecessary. Jack’s girlfriend (Elizabeth Olsen) is easily brushed aside for his antics with the boys. Allen’s mother, Naomi (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is a shackle who is soon forgotten once he becomes enthralled by the lights of the city. Even the librarian who eagerly performs oral sex on Allen amongst the stacks is merely serving as a receptacle as he gazes at the true object of his desire—-Lu, who watches across the corridor.
That this film is based on true incidents is surprising given the scenario is so eventful. Debuting director John Krokidas and co-writer Austin Bunn approach the material episodically, and the out-of-order sequencing and anachronistic soundtrack gives it the energy of a Richard Lester romp. And any departure from the truth on the part of the screenwriters is absolved when the imprisoned Lu rejects the deposition Allen had ghostwritten for him: “This is your story, not mine!” The film is attractively shot in sepiatones by director of photography Reed Morano. Stephen Carter’s production design and Christopher Peterson’s costumes, all gleaming wood and tweed suits, are also nicely evocative.
What makes Kill Your Darlings more successful than other beat generation-themed films is the fact that these characters are presented as real people–before they became myths–in a highly dramatic story made all the more riveting because its’s true.