"It's smutty and it's absurd." "But you finished it."
First time feature director John Krokidas treads the well-worn path of The Beats with bracing energy and a refreshing lack of ironic detachment in Kill Your Darlings, following a young Allen Ginsberg as he attends Columbia University and meets up with Jack Kerouac, Edie Parker and William Burroughs. Them, you've heard of, but it's possible the name Lucien Carr isn't as familiar to you. Lucien - handsome, magnetic - was at the center of the budding movement, drawing artists to him with tidal force. But after implicating himself and everyone around him in a murder, the path of Carr's star never approached that of the men he inspired.
The cast of this thing is outrageous. Daniel Radcliffe headlines as Ginsberg, and he's terrific, his usual restraint serving to mellow even the most frenetic scenes. Ginsberg arrives at Columbia a wide-eyed observer, taking cautious but increasingly gleeful stock of his first days free of his paranoid mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and a brilliant father indifferent to his wife's delusions (David Cross). His first day on campus he becomes drawn to the wild boy interrupting the campus tour with a showy recitation of Henry Miller, whose lusty words rise from the restricted section of the Columbia library. As Lucien, Dane DeHaan continues his streak of being the best part of great projects, those unbelievable eyes flicking from sly to vulnerable to sinister in moments, but always fiercely charismatic. Bedroom eyes.
Lucien soon introduces Ginsberg to a life of practiced immoderation, parties drenched in booze and poetry and benzedrine, men who feast on all things but who mostly feast on words. Jack Huston is all unstudied sexiness as Kerouac, who's already written a million words, creating envy in Ginsberg and admiration in Lucien. As Bill Burroughs, Ben Foster is delightfully dry, drier than death, the immovable force of the film, teaching the men to expand and abandon through unhinged experimentation with drugs. Burroughs lives with his girlfriend, a wryly disapproving Edie Parker, played by Elizabeth Olsen. She's lovely in the film, if rarely used.
These nascent poets form a movement tentatively called The New Vision, meeting their own desire for "naked self-expression" and disdain for rhyme and meter with Rimbaud's bohemia and Yeats' Great Wheel of Life. “Some things, once you’ve loved them, become yours forever. And if you try to let them go, they only circle back and return to you," Ginsberg murmurs at the beginning of the film. "The libertine circle has come to an end. Go back to the beginning," Burroughs intones in the final act. Circles are everywhere in Kill Your Darlings, unbreakable cycles, unyielding bonds.
Just outside the circle of artists is David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), older than the boys, brilliant and haughty when we first meet him. He's spent years consumptively obsessed with Lucien, following him from Massachusetts to Maine to Chicago to New York. Despite his insistence that David is stalking him, Lucien appears to enjoy the power he has over the man, often using it to his advantage. This dangerously codependent relationship could only end in tragedy, a tragedy that leaves no one near them untouched.
Their ambiguous relationship confuses Ginsberg, who slowly begins to accept his own sexuality as he falls more deeply under Lucien's allure. Radcliffe and DeHaan's chemistry in the film blazes hot and bright. Radcliffe sheds the last of his Hogwarts robes in a sex scene that will probably be called graphic because it's between two men, but isn't.
Kill Your Darlings' script (by Krokidas with Austin Bunn) is really smart, but the movie never feels overly academic. It's too fun and frenzied, beautifully paced. Krokidas uses some great kinetic flourishes, Twin Peaks speak and hallucinatory flashes of inspiration, but the film can sometimes feel a bit hyperactive. A library heist soundtracked by TV on the Radio took me out of the scene for a moment, and I suspect by the surprised giggles around me that I wasn't the only one. But the energy of the film is the best thing going for it, and in a film with a cast and a script like this one, that's really saying something.