Imagine having a perfect, fairy tale life with your childhood sweetheart, the one who is made for you, completes you, with whom you plan on spending the rest of your life.
Now imagine waking up on a tile floor next to an empty bottle of booze, because that person has been ripped out of this world, raped and then brutally murdered...and everyone thinks you did it.
Such is the new reality of Ig Perrish's life, and how we are introduced to him in director Alexandre Aja's [Horns](movie:466677), a tonally muddled but ultimately great little genre film from the French director.
So yes, about that murder: Ig (short for "Ignatius") Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe) has, by all accounts, a seemingly idyllic life in the small coastal town where he grew up. Good friends, a loving, if somewhat dysfunctional family, and the kind of great, soul-deep love that most people would kill for. He and his childhood sweetheart, Merrin (Juno Temple) are inseparable, still crazy about one another after years; the kind, joyful Merrin is easily the best thing about him.
But all of that is crushed one devastating night when Merrin ends up in the woods in the middle of a downpour (I'll leave you to learn the reason for that) and subsequently murdered, with Ig blamed for her murder by the townspeople. His life quickly becomes an endless tunnel of fending off the vulture-like reporters that follow him wherever he goes, being treated with fear and suspicion from the townspeople who once loved him, and trying to find a balm for his pain in the bottom of a bottle. Only his parents, brother Terry (Joe Anderson), and best friend since childhood, Lee (Max Minghella), remain loyal to him, with Lee, as a public defender, doing his best to clear Ig of the charges.
Things go from bad to seemingly worse (or at least, far weirder), when Ig wakes up one morning to discover two very important things have changed: One, he's now rocking a quickly-growing pair of horns. Two, people are now compelled to tell him their deepest, darkest thoughts. As his horns continue to grow, so do his powers, and those thoughts quickly move from "messed-up, but funny" to "Holy shit, what is even WRONG WITH YOU?!" territory. Still, Ig decides that if the horns aren't going away, he might as well use his new powers to put the fear of God - or in this case, Satan - into the townspeople to help him uncover the truth about Merrin's murder.
Tonally, the film is a bit of a muddled mess that's never quite sure of what it wants to be. It's of course possible to mix genres, but the transition between bright fantasy, horror, drama, trippy mind-bender and whodunit in Horns never quite flows smoothly, and perhaps that's the problem. There should be no transitions as much as those genres should all be incorporated together into scenes. Instead, they all fight one another for dominance throughout the duration of the film, resulting in something that feels a little bit unfinished even as the credits roll.
This might be the finest work of Radcliffe's career to date
It's to Radcliffe's credit that he is the one constant throughout the shifting tones, and a constant, he is, with this possibly being his best work to date. His underrated sense of comedic timing provides for some laugh-out-out moments as he adjusts to people blurting out their more messed-up internal monologues, the deadpan straight man in a world suddenly gone crazy with id. Yet Radcliffe's expressive face and huge, wounded doe eyes convey a great sense of just how much torment Ig is suffering, both internal and external. When he reacts not with fire but defeat during a particularly brutal scene with his parents, you get the sense he's a man whose rational mind is forcing himself to calmly accept one more awful thing in his life because to let himself dwell upon it would be to finally break, maybe forever. And yet, Radcliffe is also downright sinister when he decides to play up the demonic powers of his new horns, skirting darkly, dangerously close to the line where he might go from being the relatable protagonist of the story to the villain. He never quite goes over the line, but that he gets so close to it and still makes you pull for him is a testament to Radcliffe's ability. Fun fact, Shia LaBeouf was originally cast in the role of Ig but replaced with Radcliffe, a re-cast for which we should all be thanking the Hollywood gods.
Anderson also deserves accolades for a strong performance in the role of Ig's older brother Terry. The talented musician is tortured by a completely different demon: addiction. His alcoholism and drug abuse start as sidenotes to his character, but his addictions quickly become as integral to the story as the horns sprouting from his baby brother's head. A weak-willed character that could easily earn the audience's contempt is instead handled skillfully by Anderson, who manages a redemption arc that is both believable and poignant. Terry's heroism may flicker at times, but in the end, you root for him as much as you do Ig.
Unfortunately, Juno Temple wasn't nearly as captivating as Merrin, which is possibly because she was positioned in the film as an angelic, almost ethereal creature of perfection that no human could ever actually attain. She was also not given nearly as much of substance to work with in her scenes, which were all via flashback and comprised almost entirely of Ig's cherished memories; it's much easier to act joyful and in love than it is to do pain and tragedy convincingly, and so Merrin's character sadly suffers from two-dimensional "angel in the house" syndrome.
Unfortunately, Merrin suffers greatly from 'angel in the house' syndrome
But speaking of ethereal, oh my, but is this film gorgeous. Major props are due for Frederick Elmes, who infuses the flashback scenes with a diffused glow, drenched in color and light, the visual representation of Ig's idea of Heaven. The art and set direction are equally as beautiful, with every home having a quirky, Secret Garden-style charm that fit right in to the rainy, green lushness of British Columbia, where Horns was filmed.
By the time the film ends, you're still not sure what sort of movie it was trying to be, but it's so beautiful and Radcliffe so engaging that you don't particularly care. The strengths of the movie more than outweigh the weaknesses of the muddled tone and sometimes weak plotting. It has the feeling of a potential cult classic, and it's just weird enough to make me want to watch it again. All in all, this movie may not be for everyone, but it is alternately dark and charming, gorgeous and vicious, funny and heartbreaking in a way that genre fans should love.