The celebrated writers of the Beat Generation in their early college days is the subject of this docudrama. Allen Ginsberg is accepted to Columbia University in 1944. Intimidated by his new surroundings, he is immediately drawn to blonde haired, blue-eyed Lucien Carr portrayed with charismatic theatricality by Dane DeHaan. The timid and shy, Ginsberg is attracted to the young man’s anti-conformist views. The two strike up a friendship amidst a social circle that also includes Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. But there is an older influence named David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) that threatens their comfortable clique. As Allen’s fascination with Lucien grows deeper, David’s interdependent relationship with Lucien becomes clear. This contributes to a growing antagonism amongst the trio
The performances are exceptional. Daniel Radcliffe is our lead protagonist. It’s another daringly uncharacteristic role for the Harry Potter star. He manages to evoke a writer with a lot to say, but still unsure of how to express it. Actor Michael C. Hall interprets English teacher David Kammerer as if he were Philip Seymour Hoffman. And I mean that as the sincerest form of flattery. Honestly I would love to see those two actors as rival brothers in some agreeably turgid drama directed by David O. Russell. But I digress. The genuine revelation here is Dane DeHaan who embodies cool rabble-rousing student Lucien Carr with verve and style. He blithely rejects the writing conventions of the day with a disrespectful air that is cheeky. Yet his ideas are substantially grander than his abilities to compose.
William Faulkner once said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” He was admonishing authors from relying on their personal favorite elements. The title is a clever play on words as a real life murder will infect the lives of their circle. It builds to a fervid climax but that really isn’t the thrust of the narrative. The setting allows for a concentrated biographical study in a minor key. The atmosphere is rather stylish. A memorably mischievous scene occurs when the band breaks into the school library at midnight and replaces the classic works featured, with banned books by Henry Miller, James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence. First time writer/director John Krokidas further energizes this episode and others by infusing the soundtrack with anachronistic music (TV on the Radio, The Libertines). In doing so he places their philosophy in a contemporary context. Ginsberg’s in-class debates with his professor about the nature of, and need for, rhyme and meter is an amusing vignette that prefaces poems like Howl for which he would later become famous. There are limitations to the account. It’s hard to properly convey the creative process of writing in an exciting way in a movie. Someone typing furiously at a typewriter isn’t the most cinematic of displays. But more often than not, this is an entertaining story about a group of outsiders that ultimately crashed the mainstream party.