The embryonic stage of the Beat Generation is the subject of “Kill Your Darlings,” a debut film from writer-director John Krokidas that’s rich in atmosphere but a bit hazy in narrative clarity. Still, its dissection of the initial phases of a rebel movement and of a little–known tragedy that colored it is fascinating, especially since the film boasts some strong performances.
Daniel Radcliffe continues his largely successful efforts to go beyond his Harry Potter persona to play the young Allen Ginsberg, an aspiring intellectual who makes the painful decision to leave his New Jersey home to accept a scholarship to Columbia University in the early forties. His departure to New York City is difficult because his mother Naomi (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a troubled woman whose fragile mental state depends largely on his support. But his father Louis (David Cross), a teacher who was a published poet himself, encourages him to take up the offer, and he does.
Columbia proves a different world, of course. When he voices tentative objections to the rigid rules of versifying enunciated by a stuffy professor (John Cullum), the nervous lad catches the attention of classmate Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), a flamboyant hedonist who introduces him to a circle of friends that includes the coolly intense young William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and the charismatically ebullient Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston). Together the quartet become committed to establishing a radical literary movement they grandiosely term The New Vision. But constantly hovering in the background is David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), a domineering older man who does menial work at the university but has been a mentor of sorts to Carr and still exerts a mysterious hold over him.
The plot of “Kill Your Darlings” hangs on the relationship that naïve newbie Ginsberg quickly develops with the mercurial Carr, who encourages Allen to indulge in his life of reckless excess in order to bring out his talent. The problem is that Lucien, while provoking literary expression in others, is unable to produce art himself, and his mixture of resentment and affection is further complicated by the insistent intrusions of Kammerer, to whom Carr is drawn although he’s also repulsed by him. It has to be remembered that while Kerouac had a live-in girlfriend (played here by Elizabeth Olsen, who literally hasn’t much to do), the predominant sexual element among these future Beats was gay at a time when that wasn’t deemed socially acceptable, which often led to a destructive self-loathing; and that’s what happens in the case of Carr and Kammerer.
“Kill Your Darlings” is, therefore, more than simply a portrait of the artist as a young man, though Radcliffe goes far to capture the tremulous intensity of a young man on the verge of realizing his literary destiny, and pushed into doing so by a comrade who can’t go over the precipice with him. It also aims to be a portrait of a group of young rebels at the point of staking out a role for themselves in the literary firmament, and of a group that was still largely forced to live in the shadows for fear of persecution. That’s a heady mixture to attempt, and Krokidas’ decision to present it all in the form of florid cinematic spurts that come across almost like riffs of improvisation from a jazz pianist makes it all the harder to get a handle on, despite fine technical contributions from cinematographer Reed Morano, production designer Stephen Carter, art director Alexios Chrysikos, set decorator Sarah E. McMillan and costume designer Warren Shaw in giving it an almost hallucinatory period ambience.
Nonetheless the film builds a pretty seductive atmosphere of discovery and danger, and the cast treat it as a real ensemble piece. Radcliffe seizes much of the attention, of course, but he’s certainly matched by DeHaan, who again shows himself as a young actor to watch. Foster makes a hilariously deadpan Burroughs and Huston a suitably virile Kerouac, but both play second fiddle to Radcliffe and DeHaan, and though Hall brings a menacing vibe to Kammerer, it’s largely a one-note turn. The rest of the cast serve their lesser functions well, with Leigh particularly moving as Ginsberg’s troubled mother and John Cullum offering a sharp cameo as a crusty but perceptive Columbia professor.
The result is a film that may not be the last word on the Beats, but offers an intoxicating glimpse of the movement’s origins.