"Kill Your Darlings" marks the latest, and possibly most successful step yet, in Daniel Radcliffe's continued efforts to move away from his most recognizable role and carve out a career for himself beyond the world of Harry Potter. Since its debut at Sundance, director John Krokidas' film has gained notoriety as the film in which the former boy wizard plays gay and takes drugs. But it deserves attention beyond that. Its strong performances buoy a compelling true story of one of the more scandalous, but lesser known, episodes in the early days of the Beat movement.
Radcliffe plays a young Allen Ginsberg just as he's heading off to college at Columbia University in the fall of 1943. A rather shy, upstanding young man, he quickly falls under the spell of a charismatic and rebellious classmate named Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan, "The Place Beyond the Pines"). Before long, Carr is exposing Ginsberg to the joys of jazz and drugs, and introducing him to a circle of friends that includes William Burroughs (Ben Foster, "Ain't Them Bodies Saints") and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston, "Boardwalk Empire"). Together, the young men experiment with any drug they can get their hands on (leading to several funny scenes of Ginsberg hopped up on speed, freaking his roommate out by frantically writing and running around their dorm room like a maniac) and dream of creating a fresh literary movement, which they dub "The New Vision," that they believe will change the world.
Conflict comes in the form of David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall, "Dexter") a former professor and occasional member of the group who is so hung up on Carr that he left his job just to follow the boy when he transferred to Columbia. The precise details of their relationship are deliberately left unclear, but for his part, Carr cruelly takes advantage of the man's fixation by making him write his homework assignments. Despite these warning signs, Ginsberg finds himself similarly besotted with the young man. As Kammerer's obsession turns more desperate, events begin to spiral out of control, ultimately leading one of the men to commit murder.
By leaving the specifics of Carr's past ambiguous until late in the film, screenwriter Austin Bunn's script robs the story's climax of some of its emotional impact, and he tries to wrap things up a little too neatly with a happier ending than the film needed. But for the most part he tells an utterly absorbing tale. In his feature film debut, Krokidas is able to wring a lot of style out of a rather small budget and absolutely nails the period details.
It's still a somewhat unsettling experience seeing Harry Potter engaging in explicit gay sex (though that will no doubt be big draw for many), but Radcliffe is quite good in what is by far the least showy role in the film. I admire his desire to grow and challenge himself as an actor, and it will be interesting to see whether or not his fans stick with him through the journey. But the true standout of the cast is Dane DeHaan, who's quickly emerging as one of the more exciting young actors to come around in a while. He has great chemistry with Radcliffe, and he's magnetic enough that the obsession Lucien inspires in those around him seems justified.