Former “Harry Potter” star Daniel Radcliffe’s transition into explicit dramas infused with frank dialogue and sexuality doesn’t carry the aura of defilement one might expect. Unlike the shock of Miley Cyrus’ crassly erotic VMA performance, Radcliffe has steadily matured as an actor through the very franchise he’s now moving beyond. After all, by the final “Potter” film, the wizardly student was a full-blown pubescent teenager scarred by the specter of death in more ways than one. It’s easy to make the case that the entire seven-film opus formed a single coming of age story, not only for its central character but Radcliffe himself: Having matured into an increasingly darker franchise, he was more than ready to confront the dramas of real life.
That seems to be the right direction for the actor: Of the three completed movies that Radcliffe has starred in this year alone, only one contains a truly compelling fantasy element, though it’s weirder and more bizarrely subversive than anything in the “Potter” universe. No, I’m not talking about “Horns,” Alexandre Aja’s initially amusing but ultimately uneven fable about an angry young man who grows satanic appendages out of his skull while grieving the death of his girlfriend, nor do I refer to the vulgar romcom “The F Word.” The real outlandish post-“Potter” achievement for Radcliffe is playing Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in “Kill Your Darlings.”
An impressively dour and well-made treatment of Ginsberg’s early years, “Kill Your Darlings” takes place at Columbia University with fellow cohorts Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), whose role in the 1944 murder of David Kammerer eventually tore the group apart. First-time director John Kokidas shows no newcomer jitters: This is a grave, largely uncompromised look at tortured young men grasping for radical ideas and stumbling through their frustrations in the process. But it’s the very idea of the British, typically genial Radcliffe embodying the brooding Ginsberg that stands out as a kind of dreamlike oddity, primarily because the actor is actually pretty good at it.
There’s an implicit punchline to the casting of David Cross in the minor role of Allen Ginsberg’s father, poet Louis Ginsberg: While Radcliffe embodies the young Ginsberg’s struggle through his mentally unstable mother’s breakdown and his emerging homosexuality, he’s also blatantly struggling with the challenge of portraying a character whose wacky creativity has spoken for itself for decades. In the past, only Cross — playing Ginsberg in a memorable bit part opposite Cate Blanchett in “I’m Not There” — nailed the seminal Beat poet’s warm gaze and meandering speech. With Cross passing the torch in “Kill Your Darlings,” Radcliffe succeeds by not even trying: His pre-“Howl” Ginsberg has yet to become legend, so Radcliffe portrays him with an ongoing reticence and not the slightest bit of ironic distance. (One assumes he watched James Franco’s winking Ginsberg portrayal in 2010’s “Howl” for guidance on what not to do.)
The result is a blatant attempt to demystify the Beat Generation’s earliest stirrings that only falters by presenting itself as an adaption of real events. When Ginsberg and the slightly older, naughtier Carr engage in prankish college antics, like raiding the library to populate the stacks with forbidden books and tearing up vaunted texts as a ramshackle means of exploring new, lyrical expression, “Kill Your Darlings” feels like the Nickelodeon channel’s version of Beat lore: Baby Allen before he learned how to howl. The movie’s morose atmosphere feels at odds with its keen enthusiasm for the seeds of creativity that would eventually blossom.
But Radcliffe acts the part so well that when events take a series of dour turns in the final third, the movie transcends the shadow of history and becomes a much sharper look at the boundaries of friendship and the nature of attraction. As Carr, DeHaan frequently sports a devilish smirk that makes his motives constantly suspect. It’s never entirely clear if he’s bringing Ginsberg into his world simply to get revenge against former man friend Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) or if he has developed a serious attraction to the would-be poet.
That level of ambiguity sets Ginsberg up for major disappointment, creating an intimacy with the character that demystifies his otherworldly persona in American culture. It’s almost enough to make you wish that Kokidas and co-writer Austin Bunn had fictionalized the story. But then again, a beardless Ginsberg isn’t really Ginsberg at all, which gives Radcliffe all the room to play around with the character that he needs. It might be best spell yet.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Sony Pictures Classics releases “Kill Your Darlings” on Friday in limited release. Interest in Radcliffe and Ginsberg along with solid reviews should help it perform well over the next few weeks. It seems less likely to remain a major player as awards season heats up in the crowded December lineup.