Ignatius Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe) has had a rough go of things lately. His beloved Merrin (Juno Temple) left him with no warning and, seemingly, even less rationale. Shortly thereafter, Merrin was found dead in the nearby woods. The locals are convinced beyond all doubt that Ig murdered Merrin, and even though he has yet to be arrested or even see trial, they busy themselves with following him around constantly, demanding confessions or at least some sense of remorse from Ig. Ig, on the other hand, has bigger things to worry about, like who actually killed Merrin. Or the demonic horns that started growing out of his forehead shortly after Merrin died.
Horns, Alexandre Aja’s first film in four years and an adaptation of Joe Hill’s cult favorite novel, is less about Ig, or even Ig and Merrin’s once sunny and later fraught relationship, than the human debris left in the wake of a sudden death. The film communicates this with no shortage of twists, turns, and supernatural trickery, but at its heart, Horns is the story of a flawed man, full of regret, who never got the chance to make amends for his wrongdoings and is left to pick up the pieces all on his own. Sure, there’s his musician brother Terry (Joe Anderson), who’s suspicious but supportive, and his childhood friend/present-day lawyer Lee (Max Minghella), but most have turned their backs on him.
For his part, Radcliffe capably steps into the shoes of a man who had a trapdoor open beneath him without warning and is still struggling to pick up the pieces. If his American accent is still spotty at points, it’s the best here that it’s been to date, and far more importantly, it’s his performance that lingers long after Horns’ credits role. The film’s palpable sense of regret is almost completely owed to Radcliffe’s soulful, devastated performance, one that asks him to move from pathos to black comedy to sadism at speed, and he delivers it more than ably. Ig may have been a cruel man, and a selfish one, but he’s not the monster everybody else decided he is, horns notwithstanding.
Those horns offer a great setup for a horror-tinged thriller and an equally disappointing payoff, incidentally. Around the time Ig starts to grow horns, the good townsfolk who so quickly turned on him lose the ability to withhold their deepest, darkest secrets, and spew them aloud without warning. At first it’s an annoyance and leads to the veiled perversions of an entire tavern’s clientele being revealed, but Ig quickly realizes that he’s a walking lie detector test. To a point, Horns runs with this premise to intriguing effect, exposing the lynch mob mentality inherent in “dead lover” cases with a biting sense of cynicism and exhaustion. Aja clearly has some thoughts on the power of the modern court of public opinion, but they’re surprisingly one-note after a while; Horns appears to be of the persuasion that everybody is a liar and inherently evil, and it’s a disappointingly one-note approach to a premise that could use a lighter touch.
What somehow both works and doesn’t for Horns is the film’s relentless darkness. At points Aja uses the film’s confessional conceit to mine both hilarity and genuine anguish from his premise; Ig’s town is one full of lies and broken dreams, right down to his family, and when Horns focuses on a wrongfully accused man who discovers how patently dishonest every person in his life is, it’s truly affecting. When it’s a supernatural whodunit, it’s considerably less so. Combined, the two make for a watchable curiosity that could’ve benefited in a big way from digging just a little bit deeper.