As a young Allen Ginsberg in John Krokidas’ directorial debut, Kill Your Darlings, Daniel Radcliffe breaks free of his Harry Potter origins.
Chronicling the Beatnik authors seems to be a recent obsession in cinema, from Walter Salles’ On the Road earlier this year, to Epstein and Friedman’s Howl in 2010. John Krokidas’s directorial debut, Kill Your Darlings, continues on this trend, telling the story of the Beatniks before they became the Beatniks: how Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs all met in New York City in the 1940s through Lucien Carr to whom Ginsberg would later dedicate Howl. But this story is less about the emergence of literary genius than about coming-of-age in a time when embracing your identity — gay, Jewish, subversive — could get you in trouble. Focussing largely on the relationship between Allen and Lucien, and the events Allen observed because of this, Kill Your Darlings has more in common with Me Without You and Metroland — both about toxic friendships — than with the previous biopics of the Beats.
Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) is the gay male version of the manic pixie dream girl. He seems sophisticated and exciting at first glance, which makes him the perfect object for projecting fantasies. But as he is all too aware, he’s only good at beginnings. He makes a habit of discarding people once they get attached and pulled into his troubled web. When Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) arrives at Columbia, wide-eyed and impressionable, Lucien is the only person he meets that isn’t seemingly brainwashed by the establishment, so a crush inevitably develops, disguised as friendship.
His friendship with Lucien is an intense and dizzying experience, shot largely in close-up because these young men are so absorbed in their own subversive, outsider world. They move between Lucien’s former lover’s apartment – where they take drugs with William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster) and write manifestos about poetry – and the Village where they drink and listen to jazz. They scheme with Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) to get their hands on smutty literature, like The Canterbury Tales, at the Columbia library.
We get glimpses of the outside world encroaching on this coterie, to remind us that they are outcasts. Allen, especially, as a middle-class Jew, is grateful to have Lucien take him under his wing. The radio announces the developments of world war II; we see two men in the restroom at a jazz club get arrested while Ginsberg and crew party (homosexual relations were illegal); and Allen’s unstable mother calls him anxiously, reminding us of the guilt that weighs on him for not being able to protect her from his father’s whim to send her to a mental institution. Although Allen doesn’t experience cruel anti-Semitism, the first thing his jock roommate does is congratulate himself on recognizing Allen as a Jew. Krokidas makes no explicit connections between the implied oppression and Ginsberg’s actions. This subtlety is a strength, but it also sometimes leaves motivations unclear: there isn’t a clear answer about why subversive poetry, like Walt Whitman’s which blatantly ignores the stringent rules Allen’s poetry professor teaches, is so important to them.
It’s no secret that Allen has strong feelings for Lucien, although they both pretend it is, until Lucien thinks he might be able to capitalize on them. The mixed signals Lucien gives off, and Allen’s insistence on seeing only the good in him, are handled expertly and realistically. There’s a great scene, probably the most erotic in the film, when Lucien, exhausted, lays his head in Allen’s lap, and Allen vividly fantasizes about putting his fingers in Lucien’s mouth. Even if Allen is oblivious to the danger signs, we are highly aware of them: Lucien’s former lover, David (Michael C. Hall), a thirty-something former college professor who has followed him across the country, remains under his thumb, writing his college assignments for him in exchange for his attention. We worry that a similar pathetic fate might befall Allen should he act on his feelings for Lucien. This worry proves prophetic when violence breaks out between Lucien and David.
Daniel Radcliffe has been working harder than any other child actor — in part because of the celebrity and success he achieved as Harry Potter — to distinguish himself as a skilled, adult performer. At seventeen, he performed nude in the West End in Equus; he has starred in the Broadway musical How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying to critical acclaim; and he had three vastly different parts in independent films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, including Kill Your Darlings. He’s grown into a handsome man with a strong, angular jaw, a commanding screen presence, and more range than your average film star. We recognize him, but his performance is not haunted by the ghost of Mr Potter, whom he has surely left behind by now. As Ginsberg, Radcliffe shows great vulnerability, as a man in love who can’t express it, and a passionate and intelligent one still prone to naivety. And what of the gay sex scenes? They’re even less of a big deal than Radcliffe has suggested in interviews, but they do help prove that at twenty-four, he’s already successfully made the transition to grown up roles.