In Kill Your Darlings, first-time director John Krokidas delves into a world that in recent years has served up a string of movies laced with nostalgia for the Beat generation. But the film tells a sort of pre-history to the Beats, focusing on the Columbia days of Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), William Borroughs (Ben Foster), and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston). Based on a true event, the film explores their friendship with their charismatic but less prolific classmate Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), who in 1944 would implicate them in murder.
The film begins with new Columbia student Ginsberg’s initiation into what Carr describes as “Allen in Wonderland.” Ginsberg serves as a sort of audience surrogate in the film, a wide-eyed Columbia freshman looking to escape his parents and stifling New Jersey hometown. He becomes initiated into a new, debauched world of drugs and drink, while witnessing the bizarre relationship between Carr and an older man, David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall). Kammerer, a former professor, is obsessed with the magnetic Carr, who manipulates the man’s obsession to his advantage. The dynamic between the older and younger man is fascinating and disturbing, particularly because we know from the first moments of the film that Carr will eventually kill his benefactor.
But the murder, one of the most stunningly shot sequences in the film, isn’t necessarily the prime focus of the story. Krokidas is instead more concerned with capturing the birth of a movement through the ultimate loss of innocence, suggesting that the incident was as formative for the three poets as their time at Columbia. In comparison to recent films based on the life and work of the Beats, like Howl and On the Road, Kill Your Darlings is presented less abstractedly, with Krokidas choosing a highly stylized aesthetic while employing the bold juxtaposition of the period setting and a contemporary soundtrack featuring the likes of TV on the Radio.
Kill Your Darlings is a smartly written, deeply engaging portrait of a movement just about to begin. While it can at times move with a frenetic energy that feels unfocused, it’s the performances by the ensemble that keep it grounded enough to make an impact. Foster and Huston are both in their element, playing their iconic parts without a sense of irony or parody. DeHaan, perhaps best known for his recent turn in Chronicle, is frighteningly charismatic as Carr, though it’s Radcliffe who most surprises. While not physically believable as a young Ginsberg, the former Harry Potter gives his most daring performance to date, particularly in an explicit sex scene in which Ginsberg finally comes to terms with his sexuality.
The Sundance Film Festival runs from January 17—27.