An energetic debut feature from director John Krokidas, Kill Your Darlings is a hybrid biopic and crime drama based on actual events from the life of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe). The film opens with a disquieting image: a young man holding the bloody body of an older man immersed in water. Jarringly, the film’s attention abruptly shifts to suburban New Jersey, where the young Allen Ginsberg has just been accepted into Columbia University. He is eager to attend, not only get out from under the shadow of his poet father (David Cross), but to escape from the burden of attending to his mentally ill mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who begs him not to leave the family home.
At the time, World War II is raging, and Ginsberg is one of the few young men not overseas. But at Columbia, he meets Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), a kindred soul who understands what it is to be young, gay, and passionate about poetry. An upperclassman, Lucien takes Ginsberg under his wing and brings him to the Greenwich Village apartment of David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), whom Lucien seems to know intimately. There Ginsberg encounters raucous individuals including William Burroughs (Ben Foster), who giddily huffs nitrous oxide while scrunched up in a bathtub. Lucien also introduces Ginsberg to Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston). As tensions escalate between Kammerer, Kerouac, and Lucien, Kill Your Darlings becomes an exercise in perspective, adhering to Ginsberg’s point of view as he comes to grips with the possibility that Lucien may not be what he seems.
Kill Your Darlings treats the future Beats not as mythical figures but as hedonistic young misfits with a passion for literature. Krokidas, who co-wrote the screenplay with Austin Bunn, does not sentimentalize the period, but vivifies it, making Ginsberg's struggles and personal discoveries feel immediate. While it might have been nice to have a closer approximation of Allen Ginsberg's actual accent and mannerisms on screen, Radcliffe gives a strong performance. What he does not convey through speech, he shows with his body, shifting from rigid to limber as Ginsberg’s life experience and self-confidence grow. The acting is strong all around, but Ben Foster steals the shows as a supremely debauched Burroughs.
The film is at its best depicting the repressed wartime milieu—which included casual homophobia and anti-Semitism—in which the protean Beat movement formed. It also beautifully captures the artistic frenzy from which Ginsberg’s early poems sprung. Ingesting ungodly quantities of Benzedrine, the upper that was the Beats’ drug of choice, Ginsberg taps away madly at his typewriter; after knocking out a few verses, he convulses wildly on his dormitory bed, in a kind of creative hysteria that resembles sexual ecstasy. Reed Morano’s exciting cinematography ably communicates this euphoria, drug-fueled and otherwise. A nontraditional soundtrack that combines bebop with electronica is daring and effectively gives the young men’s struggles a contemporary charge.
Kill Your Darlings is a sometimes magical film that gives a palpable sense of the cultural currents and interpersonal dynamics that gave rise to the unlikely beginnings of the Beat generation. It is a promising and ambitious debut.