For innovation, outrageousness and passion, few movements can beat the Beats.
And Hollywood has been an enthusiastic cheering section ever since these iconoclastic writers hit the scene in the 1950s. Lately, a trio of movies has focused on Beat poet Allen Ginsberg.
Kill Your Darlings (*** out of four; rated R; opens Wednesday in select cities) is the latest and the most compelling. Far more coherent than last year's aimless On the Road and more sharply focused than 2010'sHowl, it centers on a youthful Ginsberg finding his nascent artistic voice.
Director John Krokidas gets the Beats. This multi-faceted tale - part murder mystery, part coming-of-age story, part intellectual disquisition of a socio-literary movement - is well-shot, assuredly directed and sharply written by Krokidas and Austin Bunn.
Set against the backdrop of World War II, the film features Ginsberg (nimbly played by Daniel Radcliffe) as a rapturous Columbia University freshman yearning to write inventive poetry free from the strictures of literary classicism. In equal measure it focuses on Ginsberg as he explores his burgeoning sexuality, longing to be swept up in a grand passion and eager to transcend the limitations of a homophobic society.
As much as it's about Ginsberg's artistic and emotional growth, the story chronicles a dark chapter in which Ginsberg's close friend Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) is implicated in a gruesome murder.
Despite his lack of physical resemblance to the poet, Radcliffe's confident portrayal is notable for its vitality and range. He superbly conveys Ginsberg's sensitive nature and tortured sexuality.
DeHaan smolders with seductive charm as Carr, the charismatic rebel who introduces Ginsberg to subversive artistic expression, wild parties, drugs and sex. The chemistry between him and Radcliffe is evident. But lurking in the shadows is David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), Carr's lovelorn "guardian angel" whose affection has evolved into a deranged obsession.
Also part of their circle is William S. Burroughs, played with just the right degree of bizarreness by Ben Foster, and Jack Kerouac, who is given life, though only sporadically, by Jack Huston.
Rebellious precursors to '60s counterculture figures, these young men frequented jazz clubs and pulled off pranks around Columbia in a merry blend of protest, Dadaism and performance art. Though this account is occasionally too worshipful, with supporting characters only half-drawn, the complex portrayals of Ginsberg and Carr keep the story anchored.
The free-form jazz riffs these bohemian fellows enjoyed are reflected in Ginsberg's early poetry, featured here in small doses. Ginsberg, Carr and Kerouac talk about writing a lot and dare each other to defy convention. Burroughs, meanwhile, is less effusive. Mostly he takes a lot of drugs.
Ginsberg is seeking escape from a troubled family life. His poet father Louis (David Cross) has institutionalized his mentally unbalanced mother Naomi (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and she looks to her son to protect her.
Though he's inexorably drawn to Carr, Ginsberg's story is as much about casting off the shackles of his middle-class upbringing as it is about sexual awakening.
When Ginsberg's mother calls, begging him to rescue her, he cryptically describes his mission to Carr as "complicated." Carr responds: "I love complicated." And so, apparently, does Krokidas.
No straightforward biopic, the ambitious Kill Your Darlings never shies from complicated matters, letting creativity vie with emotional upheaval, and exposing the contradictions and complex facets of human attraction.