“Kill Your Darlings”: When Allen Ginsberg learned to howl

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“Kill Your Darlings” is now playing at Sundance Cinemas. R, 1:40, three stars out of four. Note: Closes Wednesday.

We’ve now had three films featuring Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation play at Sundance Cinemas in Madison. Walter Salles’ elegaic adaptation of Kerouac’s “On The Road” played in the spring, and “Big Sur,” which looked at a tormented Kerouac at middle-age, just played there last month.

Now comes John Krokidas’ “Kill Your Darlings,” which could be considered the “Young Sherlock Holmes” of the bunch, showing the college-age Allen Ginsberg meeting Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and others while a student at Columbia University in 1943. If this were a bad movie, this is where we’d see Ginsberg first find his trademark thick glasses, or somebody at a party would howl, and Ginsberg would suddenly get a faraway look in his eye.

But “Kill Your Darlings” is a good movie, with some excellent performances that take a satisfyingly complex, not always laudatory look at the iconic writers. And the thing that really makes it stand out from this year’s Jack pack is that it’s a true-crime tale.

Daniel Radcliffe continues his break with Harry Potter by playing Ginsberg, a New Jersey boy hungry for experience both physical and literary. The professors at Columbia are big on tradition and order, and don’t think much of Ginsberg’s Whitman-esque experiments with breaking the rules of poetry. (The film suggests that Ginsberg’s radical free verse was a quiet rebellion against his poet father (David Cross), who measured every word carefully.)

Ginsberg finds a fellow traveler in his roommate, the charismatic Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan). Carr introduces Ginsberg to Kerouac (Jack  Huston) and Burroughs (a hilarious Ben Foster, first seen slouched in a bathtub in a three-piece suit). Together, the young writers enthuse about tearing down the walls of the literary establishment and building something new — even though, at this point, they’re not really sure what that is. Radcliffe is excellent at showing how Ginsberg finds passion and purpose with this crew, his uncertain posture rising and growing confident as he finds his place with them.

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But there’s another figure, David Cammerer (Michael C. Hall of “Dexter”), who looms in the background. A former lover of Lucien’s it’s Cammerer who often bankrolls the pre-Beats parties, and he’s not happy with Lucien slipping away from him. He jealously humiliates Ginsberg in front of a group of people, and tries to get the friends caught when they attempt a prank in the school library. And we start to get the sense that Lucien is not nearly as cool or as stable as he appears, and the conflict within the group starts hurtling towards an act of shocking violence.

It’s very tricky to dramatize the rush of literary passion and not resort to cliche, but Krokidas and co-writer Austin Bunn do a good job capturing the fevered excitement of the Beats, often using a modern soundtrack with songs by TV on the Radio and (aptly) The Libertines as the soundtrack to their mad dash to some kind of greatness. And the true crime at the center adds a hauntingly dark undertone, suggesting the heavy price that Ginsberg, Kerouac and the others will have to pay in their lives for their careless, free-thinking ways. “Kill Your Darlings” doesn’t present a complete picture, but it adds one more angle into these fascinating people who burned so bright, so quickly.

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