“Kill Your Darlings” is being sold as a crowd act, a generational portrait of the Beat writers when they were young and trying hard to be dangerous. In fact, John Krokidas’s strikingly assured debut feature is about the coming of age — emotionally, artistically, sexually — of poet Allen Ginsberg, who when the movie opens has no idea who he is. That Ginsberg is played by Daniel Radcliffe might come as a shock, but the shock wears off as the movie rolls on and you realize you’re in very good hands.
If the performance at last relegates Harry Potter to the actor’s past, which is nice and necessary, it’s not a Big Statement or any kind of Oscar grab. Actually, it’s better than that: Radcliffe is aware of his place in the ensemble and of his character’s place in the period, and his young Ginsberg is so full of words and passions that he can barely speak. Just in case you were still wondering: The kid’s got it.
He has competition. “Kill Your Darlings” depicts the heady New York college days of Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) — who has dropped out of Columbia by this point and is in and out of the merchant marine — and the group’s fiery little leader in cultural anarchy, Lucien Carr. Dane DeHaan, whose resemblance to the young Carr is uncanny, gives the role both effortless superiority and an amphetamine rush of outrage. None of the others can take their eyes off him, and neither can we.
Huston (“Boardwalk Empire”) is the latest in the family acting dynasty (Walter, John, Anjelica, Danny), and that confidence gives his Kerouac an extra swagger. Foster, a changeling actor (“3:10 to Yuma”), nails the Martian drone of the young Burroughs, who we first glimpse in a bathtub at a party, breathing nitrous oxide through a gas mask. This seems entirely appropriate: Burroughs appears to have dropped in directly from the Interzone of his most famous book, “Naked Lunch.”
Yet “Kill Your Darlings” is primarily Ginsberg’s show and, in its observantly tortured way, Radcliffe’s. In August 1944, the group landed in the news after Carr stabbed and killed David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall, of “Dexter”), a one-time mentor whose infatuation with the younger man had rendered him unstable. Kammerer was portrayed as a homosexual predator in the media of the time — one New York newspaper labelled the murder “an honor killing” — and Carr served two years after pleading guilty to first-degree manslaughter. (He went on to a long and successful career as an editor at United Press International; “The Alienist” author Caleb Carr is his son.)
Krokidas and his co-writer, Austin Bunn, use the killing as a climactic plot device and a means to tighten the screws in the final act, but for much of its running time “Kill Your Darlings” isn’t about that, other than a few scenes of Hall’s Kammerer skulking around in romantic agony. The focus is on Ginsberg as he emerges from a tumultuous New Jersey upbringing — David Cross is quietly affecting as his father, poet Louis Ginsberg, while Jennifer Jason Leigh plays his mentally ill mother, Naomi — and arrives at Columbia primed to explore, if not explode.
With Carr, Allen finds a running mate as contemptuous of post-World War II society and fubsy old professors as he doesn’t yet dare to be. Their rebellion runs from the juvenile (replacing the first editions on display in the university library with classics of literary filth) to Carr’s proclamation of a “New Vision” that owes much to Rimbaud’s “rational disordering of the senses.” For those on the sidelines, like Kerouac’s girlfriend Edie Parker (Elizabeth Olsen), it’s all pretty taxing. Still, “Kill Your Darlings” gets across that delirious late-’40s Manhattan jive: the high of staying awake for days wired on ideas and bebop and drugs and sex and all the other forbidden fruit.
Carr is the movie’s acid-tongued Pan, and his sexuality is the movie’s great mystery. He draws Allen and the others in, but what kind of worship does he want? The way “Kill Your Darlings” sees it, it’s the frustration of not knowing that forces Ginsberg to finally define who he is, and Radcliffe deftly portrays the young writer’s gathering nerve — the shift from dabbler to writer, from boy to man. It’s as though we were watching all 10 years of “Harry Potter” movies compressed into one adrenaline blurt, and at the end of it waits a terrible, ecstatic freedom. Radcliffe and the generation that has followed him is at last ready to howl.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.