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PARK CITY — The creative ferment and nonconformist spirit of the Beat Generation has yielded a mini-wave of indie screen representations recently, including Howl, On the Road and another 2013 Sundance premiere, Big Sur. By building his portrait around a mysterious killing that tangentially involved the young Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs in 1944, John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings succeeds more than most in capturing the first flickers of the literary movement without hipster self-consciousness.
More specifically, this invigoratingly textured jazz riff — spliced with hallucinogenic interludes, introspective detours and moments of romantic reverie — explores a formative period in Ginsberg’s life. He’s not quite the center of this story, but Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) provides its overriding point of view.
While Howl, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s 2010 feature in which James Franco played the poet, was an audacious docu-narrative hybrid, it also was something of a stylistic cacophony. The film never quite solved the problem of how to make the genesis of poetry a participatory experience. Krokidas and co-screenwriter Austin Bunn are less interested in the output than the birth of the poet, at least where his first experience of love and disillusionment is concerned.
“Some things, once you’ve loved them, become yours forever,” says Allen in voice-over at the beginning and end of the film. “And if you try to let them go, they only circle back and return to you. They become part of who you are, or they destroy you.”
That inexorable cycle, along with related aspects of Yeatsian philosophical reflection on the Great Wheel of life, death and rebirth, form a central motif. If that makes the film sound loftily academic, it’s not, though it is frustratingly opaque at times. But there’s a limber, freewheeling aspect to the storytelling that echoes the rule-breaking literary form of the Beat writers.
Ginsberg’s roots in New Jersey are briskly sketched, revealing his father Louis (David Cross), a poet and schoolteacher, to be somewhat unsympathetic to the paranoid delusions of Allen’s unstable mother Naomi (Jennifer Jason Leigh). His acceptance into Columbia provides a gateway not so much to intellectual expansion but to the rejection of constricting tradition. That diversion away from the mainstream presents itself during orientation, when charismatic student Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) leaps onto a library desk and recites an erotically charged passage from Henry Miller.
As Allen bristles against the rhyme-and-meter dogma of his poetry professor (John Cullum), he earns Lucien’s respect. The latter introduces him to bohemian nights in the jazz clubs of Greenwich Village and Harlem and parties in the book-lined apartment of David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall). “Allen in Wonderland” is how Lucien aptly describes it.
Also woven into the picture are Burroughs (an amusingly dry Ben Foster), first seen fully clothed in a bathtub inhaling nitrous oxide, and later Kerouac (Jack Huston, sexy and self-assured), whose untamable behavior chafes with his girlfriend Edie (an underused Elizabeth Olsen).
The precise nature of David’s relationship with Lucien remains unclear to Allen, whose own undeclared attraction perhaps clouds his perceptions. But he gradually becomes aware that Lucien is something of a sexual opportunist, taking advantage of the older man’s fixation. That includes having David write his college papers for him.
Lucien spearheads the group’s efforts to create a subversive literary movement dubbed New Vision. Having no writing talent himself, he looks to Allen to produce some actual work to support their manifesto, much the same way he leeches off David. Burroughs introduces them to Benzedrine and other amphetamines to grease the creative cogs. This gets Allen banging away at the typewriter, often while busily pleasuring himself.
In one of the film’s most dynamic sequences, the student radicals break into the Columbia library at night, swapping showcased classic tomes for erotic art books and controversial works by Miller, James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence. Here and elsewhere, Krokidas shrewdly uses energized nonperiod music tracks (TV on the Radio, The Libertines) to suggest a youthful renegade instinct not confined to its time.
The narrative generally is more fragmented than linear, sometimes at the expense of cohesion. But as Allen increasingly feels excluded from Lucien’s closeness with Jack, and Lucien tries to extricate himself from David’s influence, the emotional stakes are heightened and the drama gains traction.
Despite lingering a little too long in the enigma zone, Bunn and Krokidas’ script finally zeroes in to scrutinize the bond between Carr and Kammerer as one of resentful interdependence. Their relationship is far more complex than the stalker scenario outlined by Lucien’s well-heeled mother (Kyra Sedgwick in two brief but incisive scenes).
The Riverside Park murder of Kammerer, which presumably was off-limits as subject matter until after Carr’s death in 2005, has an impact on the lives and literary emergence of Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs. But as portrayed here, it also informed Allen’s identity as a principled gay man through his refusal to pen a deposition that would peg Kammerer as a homosexual predator. Editor Brian Kates dexterously crosscuts among the central characters at significant moments as the killing takes place.
Radcliffe can be a slightly recessive screen actor, but his subdued quality works well here in a role that calls for him to be both a part of a burgeoning scene and to some degree a contemplative outsider looking in. While he fully conveys the excitement of a young rebel determined to break down the establishment walls, he also anchors the film with well-judged vulnerability. And one scene in which he decisively embraces his sexuality likely will be viewed as a major step for the actor toward distancing himself from the Harry Potter persona. The boy wizard never pinned his knees behind his ears.
In the flashiest role, the enormously talented DeHaan is a febrile, magnetic presence, making no mystery of why Ginsberg, Kammerer and Kerouac would be so drawn to fickle Carr.
Huston and Foster handle their characters’ cultivated pre-beatnik mannerisms with aplomb, while Hall swings effectively between cool authority and obsessive neediness. And as the Columbia professor who asserts, “There can be no creation without imitation,” New York stage vet Cullum slyly draws a line between a rigid classicist and a man of sharp intellect with an eye for genuinely original talent.
Stephen Carter’s atmospheric period production design, costumer Christopher Peterson’s ’40s threads and cinematographer Reed Morano’s hopped-up shooting style make this an attractive visual package.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Michael C. Hall, Jack Huston, Ben Foster, David Cross, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Elizabeth Olsen, Kyra Sedgwick, John Cullum, David Rasche
Production companies: Benaroya Pictures, Killer Films, in association with Sunny Field Entertainment
Director: John Krokidas
Screenwriters: John Krokidas, Austin Bunn
Producers: Michael Benaroya, Christine Vachon, Rose Ganguzza
Executive producers, Joe Jenckes, Stefan Sonnenfield, Jared Ian Goldman, Pamela Koffler, Randy Manis
Director of photography: Reed Morano
Production designer: Stephen Carter
Music: Nico Muhly
Costume designer: Christopher Peterson
Editor: Brian Kates
Sales: UTA/IAV International
No rating, 102 minutes
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