There’s no question Daniel Radcliffe wants to prove he’s a proper grown-up actor now that we’re in the post-“Harry Potter” era, and “Kill Your Darlings” [in competition at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival] is just the latest step in a long-term strategy.
To be fair, the “Potter” movies are a lot of baggage to shake off. Billions of dollars in worldwide grosses and a decade of memories of seeing Radcliffe in an iconic screen role aren’t going to disappear overnight. So Radcliffe has decided to use that star status to his advantage while also stretching himself as an actor. Yes, “Kill Your Darlings” requires Radcliffe to disrobe for nude scenes, kiss one male co-star and perform a sex scene with another, and those salacious angles will grab headlines about how he’s not a boy wizard anymore. But it’s the quality of Radcliffe’s work — and the film — that should have the bigger impact on his career.
Radcliffe plays famed Beat generation writer Allen Ginsberg (also recently portrayed on screen by James Franco in “HOWL”) during his college days at Columbia, when his friends included William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston). But even more importantly he was friends with Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), a lesser known figure in Beat history but essential to the story here made up of equal parts fact and speculation.
Ginsberg and Carr became close friends at Columbia — intimately so, the movie suggests — but everything in Carr’s life at the time was clouded by his mysterious attachment to David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), an older professor who had already been involved in Carr’s life for years. Whether or not Carr and Kammerer were lovers is also a historical grey area, but “Darlings” makes clear that Kammerer was at the very least fixated on the younger man.
The film opens with Kammerer’s murder and backtracks to chronicle what led up to that controversial event. At first the loving portrayal of Ginsberg and Carr’s counter-culture antics borders on insufferable, but once the plot thickens and the overlapping relationships intensify “Kill Your Darlings” hits a compelling groove that carries it through to the end. Overall, it’s an impressive directorial debut for John Krokidas, who also co-wrote the script with Austin Bunn, and fits very neatly into the tradition established by producer Killer Films (“Boys Don’t Cry,” “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” “Happiness” and Todd Haynes’ body of work).
The impressive cast also includes Elizabeth Olsen as Kerouac’s girlfriend (and eventual first wife) Edie, Kyra Sedgwick as Carr’s high society mother, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Ginsberg’s mentally ill mother and David Cross as Ginsberg’s poet father, Louis. (It may or may not be a coincidence that Cross played Allen Ginsberg in Haynes’ “I’m Not There.”)