Film Review: Kill Your Darlings

Far and away the best film to date about the Beats, John Krokidas' riveting account of Allen Ginsberg's Columbia College days blows the lid off a sensational real-life murder.

To judge by such recent films as Howl, On the Road and Big Sur, the appetite for all things Beat beats on. Now, with Kill Your Darlings, director John Krokidas delivers a darkly compelling first feature about a pivotal early period in Beat history. Co-written with Austin Bunn and based on factual material, it journeys back to Allen Ginsberg's literary circle at Columbia College in 1944, as Ginsberg slouched toward the creative vision that would later rock America and usher in the ’60s.

In keeping with the title's double meaning, Kill Your Darlings culminates in the shocking murder of a marginal member of Allen's crowd that was tabloid fodder in its time. Deploying a jazzy, syncopated style and shuffling the chronology, Krokidas finds an ideal vehicle to convey Allen's youthful fervor and sexual confusion. He also puts his own revisionary spin on a murder written off at the time as an “honor slaying” triggered by a homosexual predator.

Opening with intimations of violence and a prison scene, this group biopic then tracks back to the burgeoning poet's home town of Paterson, New Jersey, when Allen (Daniel Radcliffe, a counterintuitive pick) gets word he's been accepted to Columbia. A portal to art, intellect, culture and freedom, Columbia also enables him to escape Paterson and, more crucially, his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh, in a thankless role), whose mental illness marked his life.

At tradition-bound Columbia, Allen first sights Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) standing atop a library desk declaiming obscene passages from Henry Miller during an orientation for new students—and it's instant love. Overnight he's drawn into Lucien's “Libertine Circle” of boozing, pot-smoking sophisticates. Krokidas nails the spirit of youthful camaraderie as Allen and Lucien hit the jazz clubs till dawn, collapsing in the street together like two puppies. Grand Poobah of the circle is William Burroughs (Ben Foster), the dissolute scion of a wealthy family, introduced smoking nitrous oxide while fully clothed in a bathtub. Also on hand are the older David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), a hanger-on who's long been obsessed with Lucien and resents Allen's position as the new sidekick; and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), a working-class ex-football player and merchant marine who's bunking down with Edie (Elizabeth Olsen) and already has reams of print under his belt.

Kill Your Darlings interweaves two main threads. A spot-on piece of literary history, it dramatizes Allen's struggle to push back against a conformist culture not yet ripe for explosion, as he goes head-to-head with his professors to challenge the rigid orthodoxy. In one antic set-piece, the circle raids the library's cache of “forbidden” books and sets them in prominent display cases.

As well, the film is a character study exploring the corrosive effects on its principals of the period's view of homosexuality as diseased and criminal. DeHaan's Lucien Carr—who all but steals the film—is an androgynous charmer who lacks writing talent of his own, but galvanizes Allen into pursuing his poetic vision. Lucien is also ambiguously entwined with Kammerer, a love slave who trails him about and writes his term papers. A seductive tease, Lucien encourages Allen to imagine they have a romantic future. It's fascinating to speculate what Caleb Carr, Lucien's real-life son, would make of this portrayal of his father. Especially intriguing is Krokidas' gloss on the murder—evoked while crosscutting to the other principals. Kammerer can't let go of Lucien, who continually rebuffs him—yet it's suggested (spoilers ahead) that in the past they were indeed lovers. This reading—which may or may not be based on fact—suggests that the stabbing of Kammerer was Lucien's attempt to eradicate his own sexual ambivalence. Allen takes his own stand by refusing to write a deposition that would peg Kammerer as a homosexual stalker.

With the exception of DeHaan, the casting is, well, eccentric. Thanks to his acting chops and expressive eyes, Radcliffe edges close to the nerdy Jewish kid from Paterson; one graphic image should dispel Harry Potter in a jiffy—yet you never forget you're watching Radcliffe, not Ginsberg, and the actor's gym-toned body argues against the schleppier original. As always, Foster is superb, but underused as the autocratic Burroughs; Hall pulls off a bruised dignity as Kammerer; while Huston misses Kerouac by a mile. Despite the offbeat—pun intended—casting, in Kill Your Darlings the richly gifted Krokidas delivers a terrific entertainment which updates this origin story with its stinging critique of homophobia.