Daniel Radcliffe’s post-“Harry Potter” career keeps getting more interesting, as evinced by three radically different roles for the actor at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival: In “Kill Your Darlings,” he plays a young Allen Ginsberg, while he’s a desperate romantic in the “The F Word”; by contrast, his character in “Horns” bears the most obvious connection to the actor’s wizardly roots, since it finds him wearing horns and contending with supernatural forces.
Yet “Horns” is mainly worth watching for the way it liberates Radcliffe from the “Potter” franchise with a decisively R-rated crime story and surreal flourishes that give the material a subversive kick. Unfortunately, director Alexandre Aja’s adaptation of Joe Hill’s novel can’t do the same service to the material that it provides for its star: “Horns” eventually settles into an uninspired series of showdowns and roughly staged drama that undercuts its meatier early bits. The project initially shows potentially for stirring up the filmographies of both its director and star, but eventually turns into something of a side step for both of them.
There’s no doubting Aja’s skill: His French slasher “High Tension” was a delicious riff on Hitchcockian devices, while “Piranha 3D” successfully resurrected the fun of classic exploitation movies with more modern extremes. “Horns” provides decent fodder for the director to play around with similarly creepy material and succeeds at establishing its oddball premise. When small town resident Ig Perrish (Radcliffe) discovers that his girlfriend (Juno Temple) has been raped and killed, he’s faced with allegations from the neighborhood and the media that singles him out as the main suspect. While ducking away from the cameras, he receives a modicum of moral support from his trumpet-playing brother (Joe Anderson) and his old childhood friend Lee (Max Minghella), now a lawyer. But the grief-stricken Ig is mainly lost in his thoughts and driven by blind rage to find the real murderer. His quest takes a bizarre turn when he wakes up one morning to find a pair of devilish horns poking out of his forehead that forces anyone in his immediate vicinity to blithely confess their true feelings.
This revelation leads to the most enjoyable sequences of the movie, in which an initially baffled Ig wanders around town facing alarmingly candid versions of usually ordinary locals. The vignette-like encounters include a hilariously upfront doctor (“You fucking patients, you’re all about yourselves”), a pair of cops confessing their homoerotic desires — and, in a more touching sequence, Ig’s parents, whose true feelings over his alleged crime deepen his sense of isolation. The black comic edge of Ig’s irreverent showdowns as he roams town with spikes poking out of his forehead maintains a zany, Kafkesque quality on par with Quentin Dupieux’s “Wrong,” but “Horns” eventually remains too tethered to its less entertaining plot for the wackiness to win out.
Realizing that his newfound abilities allow him to investigate the murder in more detail, Ig gathers further details that help him near a solution to the mystery. The last truly enjoyable scene involves a histrionically honest interrogation scene between Ig and the waitress (Heather Graham) who gave the police false intel that led to his arrest. Despite the bizarre nature under which his process of detective work takes place, Ig remains a tangibly sympathetic figure thanks to Radcliffe’s clear investment in the material. Constantly unshaven and imbuing his dazed expression with mounting rage, the actor’s maturity has echoes of Aaron Paul’s similarly distant character in “Breaking Bad.”
Unfortunately, “Horns” never manages to figure out the right outlet for Radcliffe’s performance. A series of flashbacks to his childhood, when he first meets Temple’s character, trade the humorous implications of the contemporary scenes for a fairy tale-like nostalgia trip that calls to mind “Stand By Me.” That more serious tone eventually invades the modern scenes as well: When Ig gains ground in his attempts to find the real murderer and concoct a scheme for obtaining vengeance, “Horns” takes a messy sharp turn into soul-searching themes clumsily implemented from the source material to the detriment of the satisfyingly idiosyncratic narrative that clearly interests Aja more.
Certainly the weirdest movie of Radcliffe’s career, “Horns” obtains compelling direction whenever it gets away from the details of the plot and instead foregrounds the alternately humorous and intense powers that Ig magically possesses. His warpath takes a fair amount of twists, including the most insanely disturbing drug trip since “Requiem For a Dream,” but the style is frequently out of sync with the content. Though it’s all rather silly in hindsight, “Horns” suffers from frequently making efforts to take the premise at face value.
Predominantly a failure of tone, “Horns” has plenty of admirable traits and yet dooms itself from the outset. It’s an admirable conceit stuffed into far less subtle material. The heavy thematic trajectory — mainly, the implication from Hall’s novel that there’s more of a moral gray area to the concept of the devil than most people assume — never manages to plan its feet in the prevalent eccentricities. “Sometimes there is no right way,” one character concludes, and “Horns” proves that assertion to a fault.
Criticwire grade: C+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? A midsize distributor should be able to drum up plenty of business for the movie on VOD, especially on a genre label, although Radcliffe’s stardom alone probably can’t push this strange-sounding project to much longterm theatrical business.