A mysterious Beat Generation footnote is fleshed out with skilled performances, darkly poetic visuals and a vivid rendering of 1940s academia in “Kill Your Darlings.” Directed with an assured sense of style that pushes against the narrow confines of its admittedly fascinating story, John Krokidas’ first feature feels adventurous yet somewhat hemmed-in as it imagines a vortex of jealousy, obsession and murder that engulfed Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac in the early days of their literary revolution. The picture’s pansexual content and intellectual focus will limit its specialty-market reach, but it should court a small, discerning audience.
Following 2010’s “Howl,” last year’s long-gestating “On the Road” and concurrent Sundance selection “Big Sur,” “Kill Your Darlings” continues a general resurgence of indie-filmmaker interest in the Beat writers, subjecting a trio of literary titans to inevitably reductive but generally well-achieved biopic treatment. In a performance outre enough to banish any semblance of Harry Potter from the screen, Daniel Radcliffe brings a solid physical likeness and a naturally sympathetic bearing to the role of the young Allen Ginsberg, portrayed here in his formative years as a sensitive and promising poet embarking on his freshman year at Columbia in 1944.
In short order, Allen is drawn into the inner circle of Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), a devilish charmer and born troublemaker introduced wreaking havoc in Columbia’s hallowed halls by loudly reciting an obscene poem. Scorning the classical literary models upheld by their English professors, Lucien awakens a similarly rebellious spirit in the kid he affectionately dubs “Ginsy,” and soon, along with the promising voices of William Burroughs (a dryly restrained Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston, energetic), they become determined to found a radical literary movement known as “the New Vision.”
Notably, Lucien possesses little writing ability of his own, and his influence on the talented young men around him is at once inspiring and more than a little parasitic; this becomes increasingly evident as Allen develops a strong attraction to Lucien, who continually encourages and thwarts his friend’s affections. But Allen has a formidable rival in David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), a mysterious, much older man who exerts a powerfully obsessive hold over Lucien, although the origins of their troubled history are deliberately left vague.
A jazzy, jittery montage shows Allen hard at work and hard at play inhaling nitrous oxide with his pals one minute, engaging in a bit of typewriter-pounding self-gratification the next. Playing like scenes from an unusually saucy remake of “Dead Poets Society,” the sequence represents an admirable attempt to capture the creative process of writing in cinematic terms, but like much of the film, it glosses over events in stylish, engrossing but ultimately too economical fashion. This extends even to the strange, violent episode that brought an end to the Carr-Kammerer relationship, dramatized here in a fleet, emotionally heightened manner that, due to an excess of foreshadowing and a dearth of buildup, doesn’t achieve the desired impact.
The events depicted were well documented in news coverage at the time, and if scribes Krokidas and Austin Bunn have taken creative liberties with the historical record, they more or less get away with it by presenting their version of events as one of Ginsberg’s semi-autobiographical manuscripts. “It’s your truth, your fiction!” Lucien snarls at Allen, inadvertently putting his finger on the central limitation of “Kill Your Darlings,” which is that it tells the story of one personality exclusively from the perspective of another. The viewer is granted access only to Allen’s impressions, assumptions, recollections and outright inventions, which don’t add up to a fully satisfying or convincing picture of what drove his friend and obscure object of desire to such monstrous ends.
Still, even if it doesn’t fully connect the dramatic dots, the film is impressively realized on a scene-by-scene basis. Scholarly inclined viewers may well quibble with the authenticity of the central performances, but there isn’t a single one that feels less than fully engaged. British thesp Radcliffe is every inch the bespectacled American nebbish one associates with Ginsberg, and DeHaan, so frighteningly charismatic in last year’s “Chronicle,” makes Lucien a simultaneously alluring and troubling figure. In a brief but moving subplot, David Cross and Jennifer Jason Leigh bring a welcome sensitivity to their respective roles as Ginsberg’s poet father and mentally troubled mother; Elizabeth Olsen has less to do as Kerouac’s neglected g.f.
The dusty greens, yellows and nicotine browns in Reed Morano’s widescreen photography seem to have been inspired by the look of faded books and newspapers, ably complementing the muted tones of production designer Stephen Carter’s glumly lit interiors and the characters’ tweedy suits, courtesy of costume designer Christopher Peterson. Brian Kates’ fluid editing occasionally employs quick ellipses and flashbacks to situate the viewer within Allen’s memory and mental processes, effectively suggesting the white-hot current of creative energy that brought these men of letters together.