"She smells of imported sophistication and domestic cigarettes," scoffs louche student and blond bombshell Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) after kissing a stranger in Kill Your Darlings, a literary melodrama about the birth of the Beats at Columbia University during World War II, and the fatal mystery that darkened the founders' youthful exuberance. Falling into some standard traps about writers and their inspirations, debut feature director John Krokidas and his co-writer, Austin Bunn, see Carr as not only a transgressive, magnetic pal of William Burroughs (Ben Foster, first spied in a bathtub wearing a nitrous-oxide mask) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston, cutely swaggering), but the central catalyst to the immortality of timid freshman Allen Ginsberg (an overmatched Daniel Radcliffe), who not only falls in love with Lucien, but dives headlong into his "libertine circle" and their planned revolution in American letters. Introducing "Ginzy" to Yeats's "A Vision" and dispensing Rimbaud quotes like nips from a flask, Lucien charges him with composing poems and other mission statements for the "New Vision," while delegating authorship of his own academic papers to erudite janitor David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), whose obsession with Carr is dismissed by the beloved as the mania of "a queer"—and whose violent death, via Lucien's Boy Scout knife and submersion in the Hudson River, frames the saga of Allen's unconsummated romance with the group's beautiful mascot.
Krokidas seems to understand the nascent Beats' aesthetic, though he can't resist overstuffing their debates and drink-and-drug-fueled escapades with an excess of close-ups, and the wartime period color of boho apartments with radios blaring combat news, and the occasional foray to a Harlem jazz club where hallucinogens stop time, feels troweled on rather than organic. With the focus on Ginsberg's pining for Carr, and his uneasy witness to Kammerer's humiliations at the idolized boy's hands, the ancillary battles fought in the name of Romanticism and Joycean abandon occasionally bring to mind an Ivy League Animal House, with disapproving lectures from the dean, scandalized parents, and a crusty poetry prof condescending to Ginsberg as "Whitman Junior." When trying to find some formal audacity to echo that of his characters, Krokidas mostly strikes out with stunts like running the film's image and audio in reverse, but stages a nighttime raid on the Columbia library's venerated document collection with the surprisingly potent anachronism of TV on the Radio's "Wolf Like Me" on a soundtrack which otherwise tends toward the obvious likes of "You Always Hurt the One You Love." Alas, the climax brings out his very worst impulses, as crosscutting between a blade, a needle, and a dick penetrating different members of the clique is risibly overwrought.
While one of the rare strokes of subtlety in Kill Your Darlings is conveying how heretical youthful dissent must have seemed in Wasp-dominated academia at a time of patriotic consensus, one of the film's central failings is dwelling on the Kammerer-Carr dance of death—which is plausibly presented as the aftermath of a hushed-up love affair—at the expense of a convincingly written or acted Ginsberg. Radcliffe's casting undoubtedly secured backing for the project, but he fails to evoke the celebrated transcendentalist of Howl in look, sound, or sensibility. (Contrapuntally, Foster amusingly mimics Burroughs's slow Midwestern croak, presumably because a large chunk of the audience recalls the author's late-life collaborations with Rage Against the Machine and Gus Van Sant.) Hall and DeHaan bring some weighty desperation and self-loathing to their characters' ill-fated passion, but even accounting for the historical tragedy of the mid-20th-century closet, it's more lurid than painful; in a glorified cameo as Ginsberg's delusional mother, Jennifer Jason Leigh brings more acute human suffering to the drama. This hip-lit origin story may reproduce the Beats' ambivalence toward women via loutish humor (Allen is orally pleasured by a "loose" librarian while staring into Lucien's pretty eyes), but badly needed a bigger jolt of eccentricity, like a staid undergrad's liberating sip of Benzedrine-spiked coffee.