Few literary movements have spawned such cinematic adoration as the Beats. Its writers have been commemorated in such movies as “Heart Beat,” “Naked Lunch,” “Beat,” “Corso: The Last Beat,” “Howl,” “On the Road” and I’m probably missing some including appearances by Allen Ginsberg and William S.Burroughs in several movies.
Anyway you can eventually add “Kill Your Darlings” to your DVD collection of Beat movie memorabilia. This one professes to tell the story of the early early days, before their self-proclaimed literary revolution, when everyone was still a student or a Columbia University hanger-on.
Director and co-writer John Krokidas takes you back to 1943 for hard drinking, reefer-smoking journeys to jazz clubs and juvenile hijinks that are only of interest because of who the still very young participants are — and not very interesting even then.
Much the same way that the only interesting thing here for non-Beat-fanatics may be the lead performance by Daniel Radcliffe, clearly intent on putting as much distance between him and Harry Potter as he can in playing the legendary Allen Ginsberg, who was American, Jewish and gay.
The film gets its raison d’être from the little remembered or understood murder of David Kammerer, who was killed by another minor and mostly forgotten personality, Lucien Carr. Ginsberg originally dedicated his poem “Howl” to Carr but removed the dedication at Carr’s request.
Had Krokidas built his movie around this incident, the film might have been more compelling and urgent. As it is, a brief prologue alludes to a crime — you have to be in the know to get what is going on, however. The murder itself doesn’t occur until near the end.
Instead Krokidas, who wrote the script with his former college roommate, Austin Bunn, fills time by exploring the World War II-era vibe of New York and especially Greenwich Village where the pre-Beats (if you will) hang out and indulge more in depressants and stimulants than actual writing.
Allen is overwhelmed to get accepted to Columbia and escape his troubled New Jersey home, where his poet-schoolteacher dad (David Cross) must cope with his mentally erratic mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh). He swiftly falls in with Lucien (Dane DeHaan), a student just down the hall.
Lucien seems to have his own entourage of fellow nonconformists. He knows Burroughs (Ben Foster, below right), sion of a wealthy family already well on his way to junkie-dom, and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), an ex-football player and washed-out merchant marine, who shacks up with his disappointed Catholic girlfriend Edie (Elizabeth Olsen, very underutilized).
Then there’s David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), an older gay man of considerable intelligence who works as a janitor to be near the charismatic, androgynously beautiful Lucien. David even writes term papers for lazy Lucien. When Lucien starts spending more time with Allen, however, David resents this.
Some of the gang’s merry pranks speak to their future selves, especially a midnight break-in at a the school library where ancient literary texts lovingly placed in a showcase get replaced by James Joyce, Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence.
And you witness early signs of future potential — in poetry (Ginsberg), outlaw literature (Kerouac), discovery of gay sex (Ginsberg again) and aggressive addiction (Burroughs, of course).
But all the movie’s insights into the pre-Beats are glancing and insubstantial. The film seems to mark time until the murder with Allen’s skirmishes with his poetry professor (John Cullum) and parties at David’s Village apartment and elsewhere.
Lucien’s exact relationship to David remains unclear as indeed is Allen’s relationship to Lucien. There is a homoerotic component to each for certain. But since history has left their meanings opaque, Krokidas refuses to venture into fictional speculation.
And so it goes with Allen’s relationship with his loony mom (who at the end suddenly isn’t so loony), Jack’s with Edie and the mystery of the murder itself.
Which leaves at the film’s core a vagueness bordering on ambiguity. Not much of a beating heart for this movie.
Atmospheric period design by Stephen Carter and costumer Christopher Peterson works extremely well while Reed Morano’s nervous cinematography befits the hipster jazz riffs throughout. Lilting period music along with Non-period music tracks (TV on the Radio, The Libertines) suggest youthful rebellion against ’40s-era conformity
Ultimately, “Kill Your Darlings” may best be remembered for a break-out performance by DeHaan. He shows enormous talent and easily suggests the louche charm that drew so many into the circle of this fickle dilettante.
Opens: October 16, 2013 (Sony Pictures Classics)
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
R rating, 100 minutes