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Toronto Review: Daniel Radcliffe Plays Impressively Against Type, But Alexandre Aja’s Dark Supernatural Dramedy ‘Horns’ Is Devilishly Uneven

Toronto Review: Daniel Radcliffe Plays Impressively Against Type, But Alexandre Aja's Dark Supernatural Dramedy 'Horns' Is Devilishly Uneven

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.

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Comments

darci

Horns certainly does a great job of setting the bizarre mood and atmosphere. The cinematography, makeup, music, etc all work really well together to create a very distinct world. My main issue is that the screen play is a little schizo when it comes to tone – maybe that was intentional, but I’m not sure that works. I think they could’ve mixed dark comedy with the supernatural horror, but keep the tone even and smooth throughout instead of jumping all over the place.

One of my favorite scenes was at the deposit when all the snakes are coming to Ig and Fever Ray’s "If I Had A Heart" is playing in the background – that song is so slithery and creepy it really fit well. I also liked hearing Junip’s "Beginnings" playing in the car when Terry drives Merrin to the treehouse – that was more of a subtle mood-setter but it worked for me.

Radcliffe is great as always, I really liked the whole scene when he woke up and first discovers the horns on his head – it would have been really easy to either make it too dramatic or too hammy, but he played it perfect.

Alex

I have an important questions- is the film as anti- God as the book was?
I already know the scene of ig desecrating Merryns burial ground is in the film. But is his rant to the priest about god doesn't give a fuck and is a fucker himself-in? Or worse, is igs speech to the snakes on how god punished Merryns/women with rape for having the power to string men along-in?
I really want to know this and I don't care for spoilers

Faunus

Horns are not evil. The devil doesn't exist.

Furman

Your review presents a clear analysis of a of film with poor organization but happens to show a few quality scenes an sequences of scenes. I also agree that the film will have difficulty finding a distributor. My company's representative left after 10 minutes.

Maysie

Parts of your review make no sense. I give it a C grade. I also disagree that this won't get a distributor. Seems to be a lot of buzz surrounding it, a lot of positive reviews, and a lot of people wanting to see it. I very much want to see it in the theater, and sincerely hope you are wrong.

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