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Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013

Kill Your Darlings

Portrait of Allen Ginsberg as a Young Man

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As young Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings, Daniel Radcliffe is a casting dream. Like the famous pupil he played in the Harry Potter series, Radcliffe’s version of the freshman Ginsberg is earnest, bespectacled and studious—a minority in a Muggles’ world thrust into an academy every bit as demanding as Hogwarts, Columbia University.

Kill Your Darlings dramatizes a twisted, true incident in the lives of the close circle of friends at Columbia who originated the Beat movement a few years later. At the climax, Lucien Carr, played by Dane DeHaan with the bad boy insouciance of a young Leonardo DiCaprio, kills his lover, the pompous intellectual David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall). Their cynical associate William Burroughs (Ben Foster), a young man with an ornery old man’s voice, counsels the “honor defense,” which allowed a heterosexual to kill a homosexual in the act of fending off a sexual advance.

Carr gets a good deal of screen time in director John Krokidas’ acute recreation of Manhattan’s 1940s intelligentsia and always imperiled gay subculture, but Ginsberg is the film’s protagonist. He opens Kill Your Darlings at home in Paterson, N.J., with the radio broadcasting news of Allied victories. Father (David Cross) is a long-suffering, sympathetic poet of traditional verse; Mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is the mad woman in the back room, wearing a bathrobe, frazzled hair and harrowed eyes. Radcliffe signals Ginsberg’s enormous pain in quick strokes.

Kill Your Darlings has an advantage over most contemporary Hollywood and indie pictures: In his feature debut as a director, Krokidas understands how to pack a lot of information into a gesture, a glance and a few well-chosen words. When Ginsberg arrives in his Columbia dorm room, he runs his finger down the map of Manhattan on the wall, tracing the route from Columbia to Christopher Street, New York’s gay district. “You’re Jewish, right?” his roommate remarks the first time they meet. “I’m getting good at telling.” Ginsberg shrugs.

Doubly the outsider in the WASP Ivy League, Ginsberg stumbles toward self-discovery in the company of the campus eccentrics, starting with Carr, who declaims Henry Miller from a table in the college library; he introduces Ginsberg to Burroughs, scion of wealth with access to a pharmacy of mood-altering drugs; and finally to Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), the all-American boy with a mad passion to burn like a Roman candle.

With the pretentiousness of smart but untested youth, the circle of friends labor on a manifesto for a movement that doesn’t exist—because none of them has actually done anything as yet. They equate meter and rhyme with fascism (one week in a real fascist state would have taught them discernment) while looking to the jazz they devour in Harlem for new languages of rhythm. No one at the time would have credited them with the ability to change the direction of world culture. Kill Your Darlings is a reminder that large things can result from small groups working at the margins.

Kill Your Darlings opens Nov. 15 at the Oriental Theatre.