An oft-overlooked chapter in literary history comes to life in Kill Your Darlings, a lurid yet fascinating look into Allen Ginsberg's formative influences.
The stranger-than-fiction story finds Ginsberg escaping his dysfunctional home life in Paterson, New Jersey and taking his first tentative steps into the louche, libertine, literate social group that would come to be called the Beat Generation. Arriving in New York to attend Columbia University, Ginsberg finds his way to William Burroughs (an effectively drawling Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), who would go on to write Naked Lunch and On the Road, respectively. But as Kill Your Darlings depicts, it took Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), Ginsberg’s classmate, to make these introductions.
The libertine Carr encourages the mousy Ginsberg to break out of the circular pattern of life that has him following a curved line to nowhere but death. “Life is only interesting if life is wide,” Carr insists, and it’s not long before they’re on Benzedrine-fueled creative kicks. Ginsberg proposes they formalize Carr’s philosophy as “the New Vision,” after Yeats, a vision to be expressed partly in Ginsberg’s nascent poetry. “It’s our turn,” Ginsberg says. “Let’s show them what we can do.”
But a shadow runs through it in the form of Carr’s ruinous relationship with David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall). Kammerer has a sexual interest in Carr, and favors are exchanged: Kammerer writes the disinterested Carr’s school papers, and the younger man periodically disappears behind closed doors with his stalkerish elder. Meanwhile, Ginsberg contends with his blooming homosexuality, flushing with his crush on Carr. Passions come to a head in a murder that momentarily pumps the brakes on the Beat Generation’s flaunting of speed limits.
Director John Krokidas—who co-wrote the screenplay with Austin Bunn—approaches all this in an uncompromising, aggressively stylish manner that’s suitable to the characters’ youthful energy and abandon, and engagingly applies textured visuals and cannily chosen source music. From Ginsberg slow-dancing with his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to calm her troubled mind to the triple-penetrative climax (one not as dirty as it sounds, though the film does have a sex scene), Kill Your Darlings fearlessly explores dark places and the compulsion to exorcise the shadows and remake the world through art.
That the film works as well as it does owes a great deal to the sensitive work of Radcliffe (in what has to be his best screen performance to date) and DeHaan, who cements his status as a star of tomorrow. As for that title, it refers to “the first principle of good creative work” (be willing to cut loose even your favorite phrases if they don’t serve the overall artwork) but just as well as the undercurrent of real-world violence that promises to emerge. In order to become legends, Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs had to kill their fear, kill their socially acceptable selves. As Ginsberg says, “The circle is broken. But with death comes rebirth.”