At 24, Daniel Radcliffe has carved out an interesting career path: After being seen billions of times in eight Harry Potter movies, he’s en route to becoming one of the best actors of his generation in movies hardly anybody knows.
Since setting forth as the world-saving wizard, Radcliffe has starred in “December Boys,” “My Boy Jack,” “The Woman in Black,” “Horns,” “The F Word” and the current “Kill Your Darlings,” as New Jersey poet Allen Ginsberg.
He won’t win many new friends in the grim, well-told “Darlings.” It takes its title from the journalistic dictum that you must cut everything from a story that doesn’t belong, however well-written it may be. Director John Krokidas, who wrote the script with Austin Bunn, lives up to that motto: They focus on Ginsberg just before and during his tumultuous first stint at Columbia University in the mid-1940s.
The story gives us a taste of his home life, with a father who’s a poet and teacher (David Cross) and a paranoid mother who spent much of her later years in institutions (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Then it moves to college, where Ginsberg encounters classmate Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan). Through Carr, he meets older Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William Burroughs (Ben Foster, remarkably deadpan throughout).
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Ginsberg also meets David Kammerer (“Dexter” star Michael C. Hall), who has been Carr’s lover and now behaves like a stalker. We see Kammerer’s murder in the opening sequence, with Carr behind bars for committing it. Later, we hear his defense: This was an “honor slaying,” justifiable because the dead man was a homosexual who wouldn’t leave him alone. (Sure enough, the real Carr served just two years in prison for manslaughter.)
The script covers a lot of ground in its short span, giving no hint that Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs will be the literary core of the Beat Generation of the 1950s. At this point, they seem like self-indulgent, foolish pranksters; for all of Carr’s talk about a “new vision” for literature, a phrase he borrows from Arthur Rimbaud, these four write nothing consequential while we see them. (Their crowning achievement is to break into the college library’s display cases and substitute banned books for Shakespeare and a Gutenberg Bible.)
At the center of the film lies a moral question, not a literary one: Should Ginsberg abandon the potentially visionary Carr when he turns out to be a liar, an exploiter and an emotional traitor? Should he, in fact, “kill his darling” when Carr commits a heinous act and asks Ginsberg to lie for him?
The acting stays at a high level, though minor characters go through few changes. DeHaan captures Carr’s charisma and infuriating selfishness.
Radcliffe runs the gamut from exhilaration to consternation to profound depression and does all those moods well. He has been signed to play Igor in a big-budget “Frankenstein” for Twentieth Century Fox, with James McAvoy as the overambitious doctor. It would be a sad commentary if he gained his largest post-Potter audience by mumbling “Brains, mahhhhster,” but I suspect that’s in the cards.