Despite celebrating writers who broke from form and convention, beat poet drama Kill Your Darlings adheres to film structure and yet it still manages to be unfocussed. However, performances from Radcliffe, DeHaan et al stop it from being a disaster.
Teenager Allen Ginsberg (Radcliffe) attends Columbia and immediately falls in with the charismatic Lucien Carr (DeHaan), a libertine who drags the innocent Ginsberg into his circle of poets, writers and drug addicts, namely William S. Boroughs (Foster), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall). As the group rail against the meter and rhyme principles of established poetry they dabble in experimental writing and explore sexual taboos.
The Beats: The College Years would be an alternative title. Like a band of superheroes devoted to fight crime - bad writing is just criminal – the gang flit about the college and local bars, decrying establishment mores. That’s fun and exciting but just around the halfway mark, right after the team break into Columbia’s prestigious library to swap the classic books on display for banned books, Kill Your Darlings starts to unravel.
Why writer-director John Krokidas branches out to Kerouac’s home life (he’s married to Elizabeth Olsen’s Edie Parker) when the story is Ginsberg and Carr’s relationship is one of the tangents Kill Your Darlings is guilty of. The Ginsberg/Carr affair becomes an undefined love triangle. Their writing is forgotten about. Without clear momentum things strays and boredom sets in.
Thankfully the performances are terrific. Radcliffe, despite the specs and his messing about with a broom in his opening scene, leaves Harry Potter behind in this mature role. His Ginsberg might veer towards the constant curse of these Genius: The Early Years dramas - Krokidas can’t resist weaving later brilliance into the younger version, but bar one or two scenes where Radcliffe impresses his professor, his Ginsberg is an insecure mess who needs drugs to fuel inspiration.
But it’s DeHaan that once again demands attention. After roles in the criminally underrated Chronicle and The Place Beyond The Pines, DeHaan has the troubled teen down pat; there’s something ominous about those glassy eyes that sit on top of dark circles and when he walks into a scene it’s impossible to predict what will happen, like he will either cry out of desperate loneliness or stick you with a knife. In a good way of course.