This Beat generation film - starring Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg - hammers out a surprisingly complex and satisfying rhythm, with just the odd dud note
Films about the Beat generation are all too often made for kudos by well-meaning but not so well-read dilettantes who simply want to advertise their often misguided interest in the this now-infamous bohemian group of writers. Kill Your Darlings, though, is the real deal, a genuine attempt to source the beginning of America's first true literary counterculture of the 20th century. It doesn't resemble Paul Thomas Anderson's film in style but an alternative title could easily be There Will Be Blood, since it is about the way fate can be determined in the crucible of violence, via a little-known but, in its own intimate way, galvanising moment in modern, but now fast-fading, literary history.
It begins in the early 40s, with Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) surprising his poet father with the news that he has been accepted into New York's Columbia University. His mother's mental issues have forced him to grow up fast but Ginsberg is still unworldly, and a chance meeting with fellow student Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) opens his eyes to a world of strong drugs, freeform jazz and, most confusing of all, sex. Carr is a guru of sorts, giving Ginsberg new and subversive ideas about art and literature, but behind him at all times hovers the spectre of David Kammerer (Michael C Hall), a much older man – an obsessed and mysterious "guardian angel" – who cannot let him go.
That Carr would one night murder Kammerer is will documented in all useful Beat biographies, but director John Krokidas really gives substance to this still-fascinating story, not simply by recounting it but giving it some much-needed context. Like Kammerer, the young Ginsberg becomes sexually fixated on Carr too, but Krokidas smartly doesn't use this as a gay awakening story (as he would have every right to do), rather as a turning point in this wide-eyed, middle-class boy's life. Which turns out to be the film's beauty; Krokidas perfectly isolates the Carr-Kammerer affair as a milestone in Beat history, forcing the three key players – Ginsberg and writers Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William S Burroughs (Ben Foster) – to question their place in history and society.
Inevitably for a Beat story, the women don't have too much to do, but Krokidas rather beautifully undermines the overly male nature of this world by firmly setting the high-faluting ideals of the tough-talking but, let's face it, largely draft-dodging Beats against the brutal context of the second world war. He also resists the temptation to divide the group's protean sexuality into gay and straight, instead portraying events as a kind of underground Big Bang that sent Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs off to their respective parts of the literary universe.
Best of all, though, it creates a true sense of energy and passion, for once eschewing the clacking of typewriter keys to show artists actually talking, devising, and ultimately daring each other to create and innovate. And though it begins as a murder-mystery, Kill Your Darlings may be best described as an intellectual moral maze, a story perfectly of its time and yet one that still resonates today.