Movie review: Beat poets unite onscreen in wild “Kill Your Darlings”

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From the November 21, 2013 edition

“Kill Your Darlings” is a wild concept for a movie — an unfolding murder case involving key Beat Generation poets — that generally seems like it’s about two seconds away from flying off the rails.

But somehow, improbably, it maintains its wildness while not getting too muddled. Even the headline-grabbing casting of post-“Harry Potter” Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg works.

The film opens on a tense jailhouse exchange between an imprisoned Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) and a young Ginsberg. The context is missing, but this is the first of several jolts from a movie that can’t be accused of not being lively.

We flash back to Ginsberg in his New Jersey home, learning from his poet father (David Cross) that he’s been accepted to Columbia University.

At Columbia, Allen meets Lucien, a wild child who proclaims a desire to smash the rigid boundaries of what they’re being taught, to create a new voice, a new poetry.

They team with the son of a wealthy family who has an affinity for using drugs to alter his perception named William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and a talented, hard-drinking mentor named Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston). Perhaps you’ve heard of them.

Oh, and this all culminates with that aforementioned murder. And the whole thing is based on a true story.

Of course, director John Krokidas uses true events as a mere signpost, crafting a central love story around Allen’s growing infatuation with Lucien and building a literary coming-of-age story akin to “Dead Poet’s Society” with more hard drug use.

“Kill Your Darlings” is wild, audacious and it works … most of the time. As long as you’re willing to let the filmmaker treat these beloved Beat poets like characters. Don’t expect a biography.

It’s pretty amazing nonetheless that these people really all did convene in this time and place — and a very real murder occurred — even when things sometimes seem like a fever dream.

Radcliffe shows his growth into a fine actor, though those round glasses don’t help you not see Harry Potter at times. In the past week, I’ve seen Harry Potter have gay sex and Ron Weasley sport a sizable erection in a strip club. I guess it’s safe to say they’re growing up.

Taken for what it’s worth, “Kill Your Darlings” is at least a celebration of the youthful rebellion these writers embraced.

Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics