Daniel Radcliffe Electrifies in the Sexy, Daring ‘Kill Your Darlings’

“I love complicated,” Dane DeHaan’s Lucien Carr mutters seductively near the beginning of Kill Your Darlings. But be careful what you wish for has never had so much meaning; complicated doesn’t begin to encompass the story at hand.

Kill Your Darlings, in its simplest terms, is about the birth of the Beat Generation and the college posse who would one day write what is arguably the most influential American literature of the 20th century. But it’s a testament to writer/director John Krokidas that it feels less like a biopic than it does a coming-of-age tale about desire and ambition.

When we first meet Allen Ginsburg — played by a Daniel Radcliffe who is hurtling himself as far away from Harry Potter as possible — he is at his unhappy home in New Jersey. The wiry hair and thick-rimmed glasses are there, sure, but this timid teenager bears little resemblance to the Ginsburg history remembers. There are inklings of rebellion and Ginsburg spars with a professor over rhyme and meter, but the man who becomes legend is not unlocked until he meets DeHaan’s Lucien Carr. We will know him as Lu.

Much can, and will, be said about Radcliffe and DeHaan’s performances, but what truly stands out is their stirring chemistry. As the two struggle with feelings they can’t (or won’t in Lu’s case) identify, their prolonged gazes leap off the screen with a sort of electric magnetism.

The small group assembled — Ginsburg, Carr, a drug addict with family money named William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and an ex-jock named Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) — they set out to write a manifesto that will upend the “phony” literati establishment. The problem here, is that while Lu possesses the charisma and dynamism of a natural leader, he’s no writer. This is where David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) comes in. Part victim, part predator, Kammerer is an older man who has followed Carr around the country, hopelessly infatuated with the boy. He trades term papers for sex and Carr and Kammerer’s relationship becomes alternately disturbing, sad and, ultimately, violent.

The group, with Carr at the helm, tears through Columbia University and New York City with reckless abandon. DeHaan here embodies the intoxicating danger of his character, that someone we all knew as a teenager whose boyish charm and brazen disregard for establishment compound in erotic fascination. It’s no wonder Ginsberg can’t help but fall for him. For his part, Radcliffe brings a sensitivity and a self-consciousness to the legend known as Allen Ginsberg. Here he’s a young boy struggling with a sexuality that dare not be spoken out loud. The notion that poetry can address desires and emotions which are otherwise taboo provides an explanation for why he, and the rest of the Beats, feel so passionately about heightening the art form.

For all its musings on literature and philosophy, Kill Your Darlings doesn’t feel academic. It’s fun and wonderfully fast-paced. Knowing ahead of time that these characters will eventually become wildly successful provides an interesting context, allowing us to get to know the boys behind the legends. And Krokidas captures beautifully the place and time where they all met and the events that would inspire them to write the first drafts of their most famous works.