Before Howl, before the Beats, Allen Ginsberg was just another Jewish kid from Paterson, N.J. Well, another Jewish kid from Paterson with a crazy mother, a poet father, a love of Walt Whitman, and a scholarship to Columbia University.
Wide-eyed (behind his tortoise shells) and still working out his sexuality as Kill Your Darlings begins, young Allen (Daniel Radcliffe) has arrived at the hallowed halls of ivy in the fall of 1944, ready to write up a storm. What he isn't quite ready for is falling in with a crowd that includes William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), and falling in love with charismatic troublemaker Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan). Carr would stand atop a library table and read the naughty bits from Henry Miller. Out loud. Very loud.
What Ginsberg - whom Carr affectionately dubs "Ginsy" - also isn't ready for is murder. Kill Your Darlings is based on a true and troubling episode in the lives of these fledgling Beat Generation icons. A stalker, a stabbing, a body to be gotten rid of. It's the stuff of pulp, but it was real. The events surrounding the death of David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) are the dark heart of John Krokidas' headlong coming-of-age story.
Invoking Rimbaud and Yeats, inhaling nitrous oxide, speed, booze, cigarettes, and coffee, Kerouac, Carr, and Ginsberg dubbed themselves charter members of the "New Vision" movement, and proceeded to career around Manhattan, hitting jazz clubs, underground boîtes, and parties, parties, parties. Krokidas' film captures the heady mania of the moment, and Radcliffe gives a smart, calibrated performance. His Ginsberg is a work in progress, still figuring out who he is, and who he wants to be.
Kill Your Darlings doesn't waste a lot of time showing the poet, or his cohorts, hunkered down over their typewriter. They're too busy drinking up as much experience as they can. If the film fails in presenting its subjects as fully formed characters, that's not the fault of the screenplay (by Krokidas and Austin Bunn) so much as it is the fault of Ginsberg and company. The Beats were inventing themselves as they went along, posing, posturing, and latching onto whatever struck them as radical, antiestablishment, cool.
Kill Your Darlings is a tale of inspiration, then, but also a tale of jealousy, obsession, homophobia, and homicide. It's a whirlwind. Even if it doesn't all hang together, it's worth the ride.
Kill Your Darlings *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by John Krokidas. With Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Ben Foster, Michael C. Hall, and Jack Huston. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.
Running time: 1 hour, 44 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, sex, profanity, drugs, adult themes)
Playing at: Ritz Bourse and Carmike at the Ritz Center/NJ