For his feature debut, "Kill Your Darlings," writer-director John Krokidas focuses on a lesser-known corner of Beat Generation history -- quite a feat, considering the exhaustive research on the subject. What's more, he uses the story to explore homosexuality during a repressive era in ways that resonate. It all proves slightly more than Krokidas can juggle, but the raw material of "Kill Your Darlings" is so rich and fascinating that it compensates for the movie's flaws.
"Kill Your Darlings" tells the story of Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), a Columbia University student who became the social linchpin for several future Beat legends. Carr was charismatic, rebellious and also troubled, thanks in part to the haunting figure of David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), an English professor who pursued the teenager from school to school around the country. One August night in 1944, Carr stabbed Kammerer in Riverside Park and dumped him -- bound and weighted with stones -- in the Hudson River. The killing was described in the press as an "honor slaying" and played out that way in the courts; Carr served only two years in prison.
DeHaan ("The Place Beyond the Pines") has the luxury of creating the little-known and sexually ambiguous Carr from scratch, but the actors who play familiar figures either fall into traps or miss the mark. Ben Foster plays the young William S. Burroughs as a druggie Eeyore with an octogenarian's croak, while Jack Huston inexplicably turns Jack Kerouac into a rough, Stanley Kowalski type. (Elizabeth Olsen plays his ill-used girlfriend, Edie.) The film's real star is Daniel Radcliffe as budding poet Allen Ginsberg -- we watch events through his eyes -- but it's a somewhat lifeless performance. There's little heat, even in his much-publicized kiss with DeHaan.
Where "Kill Your Darlings" succeeds is in its overarching theme (Krokidas' co-writer is Austin Bunn, a screenwriting teacher at Cornell). The movie effectively portrays a small circle of artists -- kids, really -- discovering what it means to truly step outside conventional society. Krokidas succeeds as much as he stumbles with "Kill Your Darlings," but it's an impressive start.
RATING R (language, drug use, violence, sexuality)
CAST Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Ben Foster