Dramatizing a passion for the written word on film can be tricky, but in his feverish Kill Your Darlings, first-time director John Krokidas brings creative desire to life with vigor and emotion. Based on a true story about a murder in 1944 that involved the greats of the Beat Generation, this intriguing film doesn’t view these writers as the titans they became but the unpublished young men they were before the fame: brilliant, intense — and susceptible to the charms of a young manipulator named Lucien Carr who roused them all with his vision of a literary revolution.
The centerpiece of Krokidas’ film is a pre-Howl Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), an inexperienced freshman at Columbia University whose world so far has mostly involved being a good Jewish son to his poet father (David Cross) and mentally unstable mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Anyone unclear on the fact that Radcliffe has successfully left his boy wizard persona far behind should see Kill Your Darlings and not just because Radcliffe has a slightly startling gay sex scene. Krokidas is not content with longing looks and schoolboy kisses, and he shouldn’t be: His film is about throwing off expectations and shackles and becoming the person you are meant to be no matter what society dictates.
The person young Ginsberg is meant to be is not a dutiful son. As played by Radcliffe, he’s a human being under construction, a living, breathing contradiction: He hasn’t written a word yet, but he’s bold enough to challenge the professor who stresses the importance of structure in poetry (“Then how do you explain Whitman?” he demands). “I don’t want to be the person they think I am,” he says of his parents and teachers. But he’s deeply insecure about his homosexuality — understandably, considering the era — though he’s drawn immediately to fellow student Lucien, who speaks in fiery metaphor, calling for manifestos about changing the literary world and firing Allen’s imagination in more ways than one.
Lucien (the charismatic Dane DeHaan of Chronicle and The Place Beyond the Pines) is a charmer, all pouty lips and louche sensuality, a spellbinding figure to Allen, the boy from Paterson, N.J. There’s more than a hint of melodrama to all this yearning and thwarted young love: Allen isn’t the only would-be writer under Lucien’s spell. He has also drawn the attentions of the odd, slightly older libertine William Burroughs (Ben Foster), whose one true love seems to be drugs, and the energetic Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), whose boozy ways are at odds with his live-in girlfriend (Elisabeth Olsen, of no importance to the story except as a naggy female presence). But Lucien’s real bond, twisted as it is, is to his older mentor and lover, David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), whose obsession acts as catalyst to murder.
Kill Your Darlings is more coming-of-age story than murder mystery, but its characters are so well drawn and complex the emotional weight carries a suspense all its own. Krokidas’ sepia-infused palette deftly evokes this era of jazz and booze, and his moments-of-creation scenes are necessarily florid but never ridiculous or over the top. At one point, the drug-fueled men furiously rip apart the books in David’s library, literally shredding the classics just as they eventually will destroy the status quo. The scene could have felt heavy handed, but instead its manic energy is mesmerizing — the perfect visual metaphor for this dark little film.
Cast: Daniel Radcliff, Dane DeHaan, Michael C. Hall, Ben Foster, Jack Huston, Jennifer Jason Leigh, David Cross.
Director: John Krokidas.
Screenwriters: Austin Bunn, John Krokidas
Producers: Michael Benaroya, Rose Ganguzza, John Krokidas, Christine Vachon.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 104 minutes. Sexual content, language, drug use and brief violence. Opens Friday Nov. 15 in Miami-Dade: South Beach; in Broward: Paradise, Gateway; in Palm Beach: Boynton Beach, Palace, Delray, Shadowood.