Beat poets meet murder mystery in Kill Your Darlings

Daniel Radcliffe plays a young student in a mysterious setting

Wednesday November 20, 2013 04:00 am EST

The phrase "kill your darlings" may sound like a parenting tip from Joan Crawford, but it's best known as a well-worn bit of advice about writing. Anyone who has ever taken a writing class has probably heard the phrase before. It's meant to be understood as a directive for young writers to eliminate whatever they most admire about their own work, their "darlings," so to speak. By taking out those things that seem especially lovely, precious, admirable, or clever, a writer achieves a more efficient and authentic style, or so it's taught. The phrase remains with us, and it is now the title of a movie about writers, Kill Your Darlings, covering the early years of the Beat Generation — Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac among them — when most of them first met as students at Columbia University.

In a total departure from his most famous role, Daniel Radcliffe plays the part of a sensitive, spectacled young misfit who leaves behind a troubled home life to study at a Gothic-halled school, where he meets a group of intriguing new friends and eventually discovers his own extraordinary capabilities. That's Allen Ginsberg, not Harry, apparently.

This circle of fresh-faced, skinny Beat Poet Muppet Babies hang out in smoky cafes to map out their future literary fame. In the movie's worst scene they sit in a seedy 1940s New York nightclub and speak lines of dialogue which could never have been anyone's darling: "Let's come up with new words! A new vision!" Thankfully, for the plot, they also get caught up in a gruesome murder. Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), a charming, rebellious, handsome student at the center of the group, kills his mentor, lover, and possible predator David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), a brutal act which pulls the entire group into its orbit. The real event was a seminal episode in the early lives of the famous writers, but has not really been comprehensively told until recently: Carr died in 2005, and Kerouac and Burroughs' collaborative novel about the events, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, was published for the first time in 2008.

For the most part, the film avoids the leaden clichés of bio-pic shorthand, though scenes in which young Ginsberg butts heads with a stodgy professor in English class are eye-rollingly predictable, and a stalkerish Michael C. Hall keeps popping up everywhere, often in ways that are unintentionally comic. Still, the fleet film clicks along, wisely placing Ginsberg, not the murder, at its center. It's ultimately a tale of discovery, of community, freedom, and expression, as well as the simultaneous discovery of their painful limitations, which are especially torturous and isolating for Ginsberg in the context of the 1940s closet. For much of the film Radcliffe wears the fittingly agonized look of a creature being boiled in its own tank, preparing to howl.

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