Kill Your Darlings: The birth of the Beat

by Mark Burger

Kill Your Darlings dramatizes the formative years of those who would become the literary legends of the Beat Generation, including William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and the young Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), through whose eyes the story unfolds.

As a freshman at New York’s Columbia University, Ginsberg becomes “Allen in Wonderland,” as he finds his confidence, his voice and his sexuality — essentially in that order. Whether it’s debating social ideas, “liberating” censored books or indulging in various chemical or physical vices, this is an entirely new and welcome world for Allen.

Among Allen’s new friends is classmate Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), who becomes a mentor to Allen while also enmeshed in a complicated, volatile relationship with the older David Kammerer (an unrecognizable Michael C. Hall), who was in a sense Carr’s mentor and who seems to bring out the worst in the younger man.

The post-World War II trappings (costumes, sets and especially song selection) are well rendered, with Reed Morano’s evocative cinematography a standout. At times, there’s a crazy energy and a palpable tension to the proceedings. Occasional lapses into self-indulgence and pretentiousness are offset by the sincerity that first-time director John Krokidas (also a producer and co-writer) brings to the material.

Those familiar with the writers’ works and personalities will likely enjoy the interpretations by the actors. Radcliffe, nicely stretching his acting range (again), brings a thoughtful sincerity to Ginsberg, and Foster’s droll delivery is perfect for the young Burroughs, continually advocating “derangement of the senses” — and practicing it, too. DeHaan is striking as the conflicted Carr.

The supporting cast is fairly starstudded: Elizabeth Olsen as Kerouac’s girlfriend, John Cullum and David Rasche as representatives of Columbia’s academic establishment (none too thrilled with young Ginsberg, to be sure), Kyra Sedgwick as Carr’s mother, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Allen’s unstable mother and David Cross, nicely eschewing comedy as Allen’s father Louis, himself a man in emotional turmoil. In the end, of course the “Beat goes on” — but at considerable and far-reaching cost to some of those present at its inception.