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‘Horns’ Review: Daniel Radcliffe Is a Mountain Goat With Revenge on His Mind

By  · Published on October 29th, 2014

Ignatius Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe) loved Merrin Williams (Juno Temple). Well, that or he killed her. She was found dead at the base of the tree fort they used since they were kids, and all of the circumstantial evidence points in Ig’s direction. The townspeople picket and heckle his home, the local TV reporters harass him for a self-incriminating scoop and Merrin’s dad publicly asks for his execution. Hell, not even Ig’s own parents are all that convinced of his innocence.

But when he wakes up one morning with horns growing from his forehead Ig discovers the devilish deformity comes packed with a useful side effect. People are seemingly compelled to confess their darkest (or dark-ish anyway) thoughts and ask his permission to act upon them. With no other options, he sets out in search of the truth as he wades through a town filled with lies, sexual secrets and truly shitty people.

Horns, based on Joe Hill’s best-selling novel, has an intriguing conceit at its core overflowing with potential, but despite the efforts of numerous actors who’ve been far better elsewhere the film is a tonal mess from beginning to end. The drama is laughable, the humor falls flat, the mystery is transparent and the characters feel as inhuman as the numerous serpents that begin to gather in Ig’s wake.

We’re told at the very beginning via Ig’s own narration that everyone in town always took him as an outsider, but we never see or understand why that would be the case. Sure he’s treated miserably after Merrin’s death, but we see no evidence of any ill will before then in any of the numerous flashbacks. He’s a local boy with friends, family and a DJ job in town, and he’s one half of what is by all accounts a beautiful love story. Everyone seemingly turns on him overnight, but while the inconsistencies start there they continue into the majority of character behaviors, reactions and interactions.

The script (by Keith Bunin) tries to get around having to worry about such things in part by having people be nonplussed by the sight of Ig’s horns only to forget they even exist whenever they look away. Reactions vary from folks volunteering their desire to act upon violent, sexual or dietary impulses to simple acceptance. Some can apparently be controlled by the power of Ig’s suggestion while others can’t. One particularly ludicrous scene plays like a misguided homage to Anchorman, but while it fit that broad comedy here it’s just one more scene with no grounding or consequence in the real world of the film.

Bunin’s script – from the characters to the dialogue to the unfortunate narration (“For whatever reason in this crazy, fucked up world I was being tested.”) – never succeeds in feeling weighty or real. The mystery of who killed Merrin barely lasts through the opening credits, but the film thinks it’s a secret until the ninety minute mark. The meat of the story, basically what’s at the center of the supernatural and revenge trappings, is meant to be the romance between Ig and Merrin, but even that is devoid of heft or heart as the handful of scenes the two share are bogged down by music video production design and absurd dialogue. “Are you horny?” she asks him in the film’s first bit of onscreen dialogue, and the on-the-nose nature of it clashes with the rape and murder that eventually follows.

The two do share a nearly emotional scene at a diner that leads both to her death and his vilification, but even there the dramatic power they create is deflated by the machinations behind it. Her motivations, his reactions – they’re meant to cut to the bone, but the silliness that follows as pieces fall into place just throws it all away. The blame once again lands almost exclusively with the script as the simplicity of its good/evil dynamic paints the couple and everyone around them in a superficial and paper-thin light. Her cross necklace is saddled with enormous power between them, both literal and thematic, but both variations combine into nothing more than a wobbly shorthand for “love.”

The cast is filled with familiar faces, but the film’s continually confused tone along with director Alexandre Aja’s apparent disinterest in wrangling good performances leaves too many of them flapping in the breeze unsure what kind of movie they’re actually a part of. Heather Graham acts like she’s in the next Hangover sequel while Max Minghella misplays almost every moment he’s onscreen, and though Radcliffe and Temple are fine the only real affecting performance moments come from the likes of David Morse and Joe Anderson. Unfortunately they’re only around for moments.

The idea at play here – a tale of revenge with an assist from down below (or on high?) – is compelling on its face and feels ripe for mayhem, carnal friction and fun, and a quick glance could convince that Aja has managed to capture that. Unfortunately there’s a severe imbalance here between the in-your-face antics more accustomed to Aja’s usual wheelhouse (The Hills Have Eyes, Piranha 3D) and the nuanced, romantic sincerity required to make any of this matter. Attempts at humor land with a thud – with one exception occurring in a doctor’s office – but their residue hangs around making it difficult (if not impossible) to care about the characters and their serious dramas.

Horns has an interesting idea at its center, but the execution continually misses the mark.

The Upside: Good soundtrack; David Morse and Joe Anderson; the head-shot; British Columbia is an attractively green Canadian Province

The Downside: All over the place tonally; love story not convincing; obvious mystery; Ig’s inconsistent powers; inconsistent acting and script; Max Minghella

On the Side: Shia LaBeouf was originally cast in the lead role.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.