Think of “Kill Your Darlings” as an origins story, except instead of being about superheroes, it’s about the New York literary avant-garde of the 1940s and ’50s.
We are at Columbia University, where Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs are meeting for the first time. Years away from writing, respectively, “Howl,” “On the Road” and “Naked Lunch,” they are snobby college students who think they know more about the world than anyone else does.
They’re also big-time misogynists who basically think of themselves as deviled eggs and women as paprika: a comely adornment that adds nothing (well, except that paprika doesn’t nag them to take a bath or do their homework).
First-time director John Krokidas is a real filmmaker, giving “Darlings” the jazzy, beboppy rhythm of the period and gracefully capturing the co-dependence of this tightly knit group.
One eye-opening sequence edits together Ginsberg making love with a stranger, Burroughs shooting up, Kerouac and his neglected girlfriend listening to records, a pivotal quote from the friends’ much-admired John Keats and the murder that “Kill Your Darlings” will argue marked all of these characters for life: their friend Lucien Carr killing a man who was obsessed with him.
“Kill Your Darlings” captures the smoky, freewheeling atmosphere of the time much more credibly than the recent “Howl,” which was set around the same era. Mostly shot in dark, confined spaces, there’s a cramped quality to “Kill Your Darlings” that suggests how these relationships inspired some of the most revolutionary writing of the past 100 years while also encouraging some very troubling behavior.
Daniel Radcliffe is fine as Ginsberg, and the film is a festival of great supporting performances, especially Ben Foster’s haunted Burroughs, Michael C. Hall’s fragile murder victim and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Ginsberg’s doomed mother. They’re all in service to the central theme (also expressed in “You Always Hurt the One You Love,” which is featured prominently), which is that, sometimes, great beauty comes out of great ugliness.