If it weren’t for the sex and violence I would have sworn Horns was made for 13 year olds. The film’s dead-on-arrival murder mystery and tedious, flashback-driven love story feel like they came from an edgy YA novel, but the boobs and blood are all from director Alexandre Aja. Every now and again Aja, director of High Tension and the excellent The Hills Have Eyes remake, comes alive and infuses a scene with energy, style and wit, but for most of Horns’ overlong runtime the movie kind of plods along in obviousness.
The opening act promises a lot. Iggy, played by Daniel Radcliffe, has a murdered girlfriend and an entire town convinced he did the deed. Depressed, drunk and fucked up, he wanders through his days just trying to stay out of jail and ignore the protesters outside his house. One night, in a hammered haze, he pisses on the memorial left for his dead girlfriend, angry at God for not protecting this girl who went to church every single week. And then he wakes up the next morning with a pair of horns growing out of his head and a weird new ability - everyone who talks to Iggy feels compelled to tell him their darkest secrets.
There’s a lot of comedy to be mined from this, and for a little while Horns mines it well. It also goes for the pathos of it all - Iggy is faced with dark truths from his parents and his brother. But as the film drags on - and gosh does it drag - all of the wit and human interest drains away. It’s replaced with a lethargic murder mystery that has a pool of suspects so small that it barely qualifies as a mystery at all. The film tries to perk up with sequences where Iggy gets his revenge on people in town by using his powers of super manipulation, but most of these play out poorly at best and laughably at worst. A scene where he forces his brother to OD on a ludicrous pile of drugs is like something out of a high schooler’s DARE program skit.
By the time the movie comes down for a CGI-laden finale all hope is lost. Everything that worked at the beginning of the film is gone, and in its place is some sort of darker-than-usual CW supernatural fantasy showdown. I have never read the book on which the movie is based, but if it ended in this sort of a crappy standoff where characters explain their actions to one another I’m not sure why it ever became a bestseller.
Daniel Radcliffe is terrific as Iggy, and in a better version of this movie the boozy swagger he brings to his best scenes would be the meat of the picture. There’s a lot of darkness Radcliffe wants to explore, but the movie doesn’t want to explore it with him. I like what Radcliffe is doing in this movie (even his American accent, so often a problem for British actors) and I hope he gets better roles in the future to show off some of these chops to audiences who don’t go to films like Kill Your Darlings.
As for everybody else? When I saw Gone Girl I sat through the first half wondering why Rosamund Pike would take a role like this, the doomed girl in a flashback. By the second half I knew exactly why, and loved her for it. The same question applies to Juno Temple in this film, except there’s no second half reveal that explains what this role offered her (besides work). It’s a thankless performance that plays totally in flashback and only hits the standard beats of martyred dead girl. Max Minghella, meanwhile, plays Iggy’s childhood buddy who ends up being his defense attorney in the aftermath of the murder; saying much more is spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that Minghella is unable to pull off what he needs to do in the final scenes of the film, and along with the shoddy CGI he fatally wounds the finale.
Horns should have been a deliciously dark movie about the nature of guilt, but instead it’s a shockingly fluffy superhero origin story. It’s gauche to judge a movie by standards other than what it is, but Horns begins in a way that indicates it’s going to be a movie that examines psychological realities through a metaphysical filter; it drops that - and drops the very reasonable idea that Iggy actually did kill his girlfriend - for a Baby’s First Hometown Murder Mystery mixed with big ol’ forehead stalagmites.