The Allen Ginsberg played by Daniel Radcliffe in the audacious but underachieving Kill Your Darlings is far from the brazen, bearded libertine who bridged the Beats to the hippies in one exulting Whitman-esque guffaw. This Ginsberg is an owl-ish college freshman overflowing with desires both literary and romantic. His eyes fairly gleam with all that he is not doing or writing or saying. This being Columbia University circa 1943, the establishment frowns just as sternly on his ideas about a new brand of rules-smashing poetry as it does on any hint of his homosexual proclivities. The war is still on, and such a regimented society has little interest in such yearning young artistes. At least until the murder.
The person who allows Ginsberg a conduit to a greater life than that he knew growing up in Paterson, New Jersey, is student Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan). As louche and wryly aristocratic as Ginsberg is eager and striving, Carr is first spotted shouting Henry Miller lines in the library. He slouches through the film like a sleep-deprived word criminal, burning with the belief that a new movement of writers is needed, and that he and Ginsberg are the ones to lead it. They call their literary insurrection the New Vision. There’s a manifesto, even though it doesn’t seem to amount to much besides an impatience with meter and rhyme, and a fierce hatred of Ogden Nash.
Eventually, the hard-driving football player Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and drug-fuzzed premature old man William S. Burroughs (a brilliant Ben Foster, locating the dirty music in his sepulchral growl) come into the picture. (The film leaves out Ginsberg and Kerouac’s muse Neal Cassady, who Carr introduced them to, as that might have been one angel-headed hipster too many.) While Kerouac and Burroughs — who later wrote a roman a clef about the events of this film — would later be tied with Ginsberg as the holy trinity of Beat, the story here is more about Ginsberg and Carr and their brief attempt to light the spark of a new literature.
Director and co-writer John Krokidas doesn’t leave much ambiguity about the film’s explanation for Ginsberg’s trailing around after Carr. It’s a powerful crush, and one that Ginsberg barely has the courage to try and act on; later he lets himself be taken home by a man in a brusquely sensual scene that hints he just wants to get the moment over with. Carr is portrayed as a squirrelly creature drawn to Ginsberg as well but who can’t accept that of himself. While Carr simultaneously soaks up Ginsberg’s adoration and ignores it, he is having a similarly codependent relationship with David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall). This is the older man who’s been chasing Carr from one school to the next for years but who still wields a strange power over him. It’s Kammerer’s bloodied body Carr is shown holding in the film’s opening flash-forward.
The spine of Kill Your Darlings’ generally true-to-the-record narrative is the build towards that infamous 1944 murder and placing Ginsberg and his writer cohorts in relationship to it. Carr’s defense was that Kammerer had made an advance on him. In response, Carr attacked Kammerer with his Boy Scout pocket knife, then sank his body in the Hudson River. The atmosphere of institutional homophobia is everywhere in the film, which almost pulses with anger at the moment when it’s revealed that Carr’s claiming that Kammerer was gay allowed him to get away with a fraction of the punishment he would have received otherwise. The oppression of sexual and literary freedoms are seen by the film as the same kind of evil. “The fascists are here,” Carr says.
The seething, curtailed romantic ambitions which Radcliffe uncoils from his Ginsberg bring an ardent soul to this sometimes cobbled-together effort. Krokidas elicits beguiling performances from Radcliffe, Foster, and just about everyone present. David Cross and Jennifer Jason Leigh shine in what could have been unnoticed roles as Ginsberg’s parents, while Hall brings a full-blooded pathos to Kammerer that keeps him from devolving into some homophobic stereotype. But Krokidas can’t stop himself from over-directing scenes with tricks like anachronistic music or running footage backward. It’s unnecessary. The story is already there, this real and imagined criminality glimmering darkly at the genesis of the Beat movement. There’s no need to oversell it.