In 1944, Allen Ginsberg begins life at Columbia University. The shy, mousy Ginsberg is instantly drawn to the outlandish Lucien Carr and his provocative, rock-the-boating ways.
As their friendship grows, Ginsberg becomes less of the wallflower he starts out as, helped out by the many drugs supplied by William S. Burroughs and eventually the drunken hedonism of Jack Kerouac. While this sounds like a loving origins story of the beat generation (and in some ways, is), the focus of the story is on Ginsberg and Carr’s relationship, with Ginsberg falling head over heels for Carr’s distant and aloof seducer, and how it’s hampered by the attentions/obsessions of David Kammerer. Carr is under the watchful and controlling eye of Kammerer, who doesn’t take too kindly to the new friendship he’s found with Ginsberg and co.
Kill Your Darlings is an odd sort of biopic. In a way it’s all about Carr’s murder of Kammerer, but doesn’t focus on that until the end. What it’s much more about is the toxicity of Ginsberg’s attraction to a manipulative force like Carr, and the ups and downs of their friendship.
Radcliffe is on top form as Ginsberg, allowing his progression from shy-wallflower to the beginnings of the man capable of writing Howl without it seeming forced or obligatory due the real-life counterparts in the film. Ben Foster is also a joy as the sardonic Burroughs, and Jack Huston captures the spirit of Kerouac well, although he’s largely utilised as a plot disruption for Ginsberg’s attempts to build a relationship with Carr. Michael C. Hall is a bit one-note with Kammerer, but given that he’s presented from the eyes of Ginsberg as an intimidating menace, this is understandable – Hall does well enough with limited screen time to really develop the character.
My only sticking point is with Dane DeHaan’s Lucien Carr – DeHaan and Radcliffe have great chemistry together, and DeHaan’s performance is not bad per se, but it doesn’t capture the reasons why everyone around him is so besotted with him. He’s enigmatic and brooding, but not particularly compelling – whereas he’s meant to be a mysterious, alluring presence, he often comes off as a whiny and entitled layabout. This would be fine, if so much of the movie wasn’t centred on Ginsberg’s immense attraction to him, and as it is, the film doesn’t quite get there in explaining why that attraction is so immense.
There’s a great visual style to this movie as well as a fantastic soundtrack, and these alone capture the freewheeling spirit and mini-zeitgeist amongst the young men. Rather than a dour story building up to the crime on which its based, the film instead presents a series of events and an atmosphere that explains how things came to be as they were. It’s an engaging and vivid film with a sinister undercurrent that shows up when it’s required, and worth seeing for Radcliffe’s performance alone, proving him to be an actor who seems to just be getting better and better.