You'd be forgiven if sitting through last year's "On the Road" made you gun-shy about another Beat Generation movie. But if, as Godard once observed, the best way to review a movie is to make another movie, then the people behind "Kill Your Darlings" have, intentionally or not, brilliantly pointed out that earlier film's flaws by not repeating them.
It might help that "Darlings" isn't an adaptation of a novel but rather a true story, one of those literary scandals that no one talks about until all the parties are dead. (Think "Henry and June.") Telling the story of young Allen Ginsberg (played here memorably by Daniel Radcliffe) and his introduction to drugs, jazz and gay sex -- not to mention his proximity to a murder -- the film is relatable for anyone who ever fell in with a magnetic troublemaker or spent freshman year completely rethinking their view of the world.
Stuck in New Jersey with a consumingly needy mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and weak-willed father (David Cross -- who, it should be noted, played Ginsberg himself in "I'm Not There"), Allen sees his acceptance to Columbia University in the fall of 1943 as an escape into a new life. Making the acquaintance of Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) changes everything; the fast-talking, bright-eyed Carr introduces Allan to Greenwich Village nightlife and literary parties and up-and-coming writers like William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston).
If "Kill Your Darlings" is the "X-Men: First Class" for the Beats, then the villain is clearly David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), a former professor so besotted with Lucien that he does all the boy's homework and works as a janitor just to be near him. Or is it that the manipulative Lucien has cruelly bewitched and then abandoned this man? Either way, as David's insistence seemingly pushes Lucien to homicidal extremes, Ginsberg's obsessions might turn him into Lucien's latest lapdog.
It's been pointed out that the act of writing is one of the least cinematic activities around, but director John Krokidas and co-writer Austin Bunn (full disclosure: Bunn was a staff writer at The Advocate during my tenure there as Arts and Entertainment Editor) work around this, with hilarious scenes of a speed-addled Ginsberg typing away like a madman or Burroughs instructing his friends to shred copies of classic literature as a nod to what would become his famous "cut-up" technique.
Coming off his acclaimed stage work and his haunted turn in "The Woman in Black," Radcliffe continues to flex new muscles as an actor, proving once again he's got a decent shot at not being defined as a certain boy wizard for the rest of his career. His Ginsberg is, in turn, guileless and impassioned and torn and heartbroken, and it's a captivating performance; yes, he does have a fairly explicit sex scene with another man, but to make that the focal point of his audacious work here would be reductive, to say the least.
DeHaan exerts the kind of magnetism that's catnip to underclassmen but he's equally effective at showing the broken little boy underneath; we see how he brought these people together, but we come to understand that, for all his brio and enthusiasm about literature, he never had the talent for actual writing that would put him on the same path with his friends.
Hall makes a convincing stalker, and while it's easy to go cartoonish when playing someone as uniquely larger-than-life as Burroughs, Ben Foster nails the voice without ever slipping into caricature.
For a low-budget movie, "Kill Your Darlings" gets its wartime details just right, from a nighttime raid of the Columbia library's "forbidden" books to the squalid apartment Kerouac shares with girlfriend Edie (Elizabeth Olsen). The word "beat" is never mentioned, but we do see Ginsberg do a lot of table-drumming when the boys go listen to jazz and talk about their "new vision" for literature. That's what makes it so jarring on the one or two occasions the movie throws in contemporary music.
That one incongruous element aside, however, "Kill Your Darlings" takes a captivating look at an American literary giant in those years before he was ready to howl.