Dane DeHaan may play a supporting role in director John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings, but he casts a long shadow over this 40s drama about the university years of poet Allen Ginsberg.
Daniel Radcliffe plays Ginsberg, a nervy, naive young man still coming to terms with his sexuality in an aggressively homophobic time. The story begins as he earns a place at the prestigious Columbia University, just as his mentally ill mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who’s as excellent as ever) is sent to an institution of a more troubling kind.
It’s at Columbia that Allen meets Lucien Carr (DeHaan), a charismatic, slightly condescending intellectual whose brusque exterior masks a vulnerable and desperately sad past. Allen’s immediately besotted with Lucien, but discovers that he’s already in a dangerously parasitic relationship with David Kammerer (Michael C Hall), an academic who writes Lucien’s university papers on the sly.
Drawn into Lucien’s world of drunken parties, jazz bars and drugged-up poetry, Allen finds an outlet for his frustrations – specifically, the rules of rhyme and meter established by his father, Louis (David Cross), also poet of some repute, and his stuffy old teacher, Professor Stevens (John Cullum). With fellow writers Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and the permanently whacked-out William Burroughs (Ben Foster), Allen and Lucien talk about their grand vision for a brave new era of poetry, while spending a greater proportion of their time getting into trouble for stealing boats and switching rare works by Shakespeare with outlawed erotic books by Henry Miller in the university library.
Krokidas directs with a sure, confident hand, and the era is captured in seductively-lit interiors that are as rich and mellow as a glass of brandy next to an open fire. The script, co-written by Krokidas and Austin Bunn, is intelligent, witty and poignant, elegantly capturing Ginsberg’s awkwardness and devotion to Lucien, who seldom misses an opportunity to use that affection for his own advantage.
The cast is also uniformly excellent, and Ben Foster’s portrayal of Burroughs – who would later become infamous for his novels Junkie and Naked Lunch – is so good, it’s a pity the script doesn’t find more for him to do; the first time we meet Burroughs, he’s lying fully clothed in a bath and huffing on a tank of nitrous oxide, and it may well be the funniest character introduction you’ll see all year.
Radcliffe turns in his most compelling post-Potter performance yet as Ginsberg, bringing a fractious sort of innocence to the future writer of Howl and The Fall Of America – he’s certainly more suited to the role than that of the saucer-eyed accountant in the recent screen adaptation of The Woman In Black, for example.
If there’s a problem with Kill Your Darlings, it’s that Dane DeHaan’s predator-eyed performance as Lucien ends up dominating almost every scene; the movie may be shot through Ginsberg’s eyes, but it’s Lucien, as a troubled young man who seems to positively revel in his self-destructive nature, who creates the most indellible impression. DeHaan’s already made a mark playing similarly disturbed youths in Chronicle and The Place Beyond The Pines, and he’s equally good here.
But as an evocation of a unique moment in history, where a group of writers happened to cross paths years before fame would strike, Kill Your Darlings is a real success. Some jarring usage of modern music aside, the film’s invested with a welcome jolt of youthful energy, as beguiling and cocksure as Lucien himself. And while Kill Your Darlings is very much DeHaan’s film, this is by no means a slight on Radcliffe, whose performance is generous and subtle.
Proving that he’s equal to a script that is smart and full of adult situations, Radcliffe’s taken a decisive step away from his child star status in a mature drama with some uncompromising moments. The film’s title probably holds its own significance for Radcliffe, and if his intention was to finally put some distance between himself and a certain other bespectacled character, then mission accomplished. Hogwarts this is not.
Kill Your Darlings is out on the 6th December in the UK.
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