In Kill Your Darlings, one-time wizard Daniel Radcliffe returns to the hallowed halls of academia, this time to play a bespectacled literary icon of a different sort: a teenaged, painfully shy Allen Ginsberg, the artist as a closeted young man. The film is set in 1944, the year the poet first started cutting class as a freshman at Columbia University and spending his nights with a group of like-minded, soon-to-be-famous wordsmiths. Among them was jockish playboy Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), throwing footballs and insults before he went on the road, and oddball rich kid William Burroughs (Ben Foster), huffing gas long before he became an exterminator. And at the center was Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), a devil-may-care troublemaker and the glue that held the group together. They were thick as thieves, these new libertines, until an act of violence severed the ties that bound them.
Plenty have explored the seminal, collegiate salad days of Ginsberg and his cohorts, with even the writers themselves revisiting them through their own prose. But Kill Your Darlings may be the first Beat flashback to feel like an X-Men prequel—a kind of Beat Generation: First Class, built on the presumed excitement of seeing these iconic figures as fresh-faced youngsters, spewing the doctrines of their so-called New Vision as though they were nascent catchphrases. Yes, this is the type of movie in which characters write a manifesto aloud, like musicians in a bad biopic, coming up with that hit refrain in an “aha” moment. Like most films about writing, Kill Your Darlings has no clue how to visualize the creative process; filmmaker John Krokidas resorts to a flurry of montage, cutting between Ginsberg agonizing over his typewriter in a dorm room and—in what better well be based in fact, because otherwise, ugh—creating massive collage mosaics from the ripped-out pages of lit classics. Krokidas also sets some of the gang’s antics to modern music, using TV On The Radio’s “Wolf Like Me” to propel a banned-book raid in a darkened library. Perhaps this is a tribute to the way his subjects dared to break the rules. Or maybe he just thinks that all the talk of howling will evoke “Howl.”
The saving grace of Kill Your Darlings is its sordid romantic angle, a narrative thread that pulls the film away from wink-wink allusions and into more serious emotional territory. At heart, this is a love triangle, one that drops a smitten Ginsberg between the charismatic Carr and the latter’s stalkerish benefactor, David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), similarly bewitched by the young, sexually ambiguous heartbreaker. Even before the scenario explodes into violence—culminating in a true-crime climax built from hard fact, hearsay, and invention—Krokidas has mined it for fine speculative melodrama. His performers, too, are mostly outstanding: DeHaan, the spookily talented young star of Chronicle and The Place Beyond The Pines, makes Carr as magnetic (and cruelly manipulative) as he needs to be. Radcliffe, meanwhile, rarely seems to be attempting an imitation, opting instead to play his real-life poet as just a mixed-up kid on the cusp of greatness. To that end, his most naked moment isn’t the much-ballyhooed gay sex scene, but instead an impromptu reading of an early work, laying his soul bare to a couple of smartass peers. For a moment, it’s as if Ginsberg has come to life onscreen—through his words and not some cheeky reference for avid Wikipedia users.