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What on earth did the world need with another movie about the Beats? The loose-knit band of writers who inspired millions of high schoolers to recreate their own On the Road-style adventures have been celebrated endlessly in culture, and pretty much zero adaptations of their work have ever matched their fluid, emotional style. Kill Your Darlings, which premiered here at Sundance, doesn't really do that either, but it's got plenty else going to recommend it-- including a performance from Daniel Radcliffe that seems to prove, at last, that he really is an actor worth watching.
Casting Harry Potter as a young, sexually confused Allen Ginsberg reeks of the worst kind of stunt casting, and it's very possible that plenty of the Sundance audiences that flocked to it here were just in it for the shock of seeing Radcliffe in a gay sex scene. But with dark brown contact lenses and a mop of curly hair, plus Ginsberg's signature blocky glasses, Radcliffe slips seamlessly into the role, and offers a stillness and vulnerability that the Harry Potter films simply didn't give him time for. As the wide-eyed newcomer to the world of Kerouac and Burroughs, Ginsberg is probably the least interesting character in Kill Your Darlings, but Radcliffe makes him relatable and sometimes heartbreaking, with canny indications of the genius he would become.
And it's through Ginsberg's eyes that we meet the film's most dynamic, fascinating and terrifyingly sexy character, Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), a classmate of Ginsberg's at Columbia who introduced him to Kerouac and Ginsberg and was fundamental in founding the Beat movement. DeHaan put in two fantastic performances in 2012, as the lead in Chronicle and a supporting part in Lawless, but he too is transformed here, playing the seductive and mercurial Carr as exactly the kind of charismatic talker who has the power to start revolutions. Even saddled with chunky lines of dialogue like "Let's come up with our own words, new rhythms" DeHaan's Carr is perfectly convincing, and when his flirtation with Ginsberg becomes less innocent for both of them, both boys' confused longing puts a flourish of heartbreak on a story that might have steered too intellectual.
Rounding out the quartet of big thinkers are a fantastic and dryly funny Ben Foster as Burroughs and Jack Huston, best known as Richard Harrow on Boardwalk Empire, as a brawny Kerouac. There's plenty of time spent with this bunch as they wax poetic about their ideas-- and director John Krokidas nicely illustrates their rhythmic, hallucinatory writing with scenes set in jazz clubs both imaginary and real-- but the main story centers on a murder in which all four were implicated. Handed a narrow story with its own narrative power, Kill Your Darlings does away with the exhausting biopic tendency to show off every aspect of greatness, and simply tells this one slice of Ginsberg's life in intimate, fascinating detail.
Picked up by boutique label Sony Pictures Classics, Kill Your Darlings is even more accessible and entertaining than last year's Kerouac adaptation On the Road, and fans of Radcliffe and DeHaan could have the power to make it a small-scale hit. Even audiences who think they're exhausted by the endless lionization of the Beats ought to be able to find something new in this surprisingly resonant and beautifully acted film.
For our entire Sundance Film Festival coverage, click here.