Radcliffe an Admirable Force Behind Twisted, Pointless 'Horns'

Directed by: Alexandre Aja; Runtime: 120 minutes
Grade: C

While Daniel Radcliffe revealed steady growth in his acting capabilities during the progression of the Harry Potter series of films, it's only throughout the past year-plus that he's revealed the versatile nature of his cinematic talent. From his transformative performance as Allen Ginsbergn in Kill Your Darlings to a subtler application of his innate charms in What If, the young actor has begun a graceful branching away from "the boy who lived" and into mature personas that stretch and challenge his ability to inhabit a character. Horns, the new quasi-horror drama from High Tension and Pirahna director Alexandre Aja, further pushes what he can do in the role of a small-town twenty-something whose internal grief and guilt over his girlfriend's death manifests into something ... external. Radcliffe's performance stands out as the primary takeaway from the awkwardly campy film, though, which cannot cohesively fuse together its melancholy romance, whodunit mystery, and hazy observations on morality.

Iggy's odds aren't looking too hot. With the body of his girlfriend since childhood, Merrin (Juno Temple), discovered near their regular hangout spot and all reports indicating that he's the last one seen with her before her death, he's the sole suspect in her murder. Thing is, due to an alcoholic stupor that started some time before her death, Iggy can't precisely remember what happened that evening, despite rigorously denying his involvement. While those inside Iggy's inner circle operate as if he hasn't committed the murder, seeing as how he and Merrin have been inseparable since grade school, the townspeople -- including Merrin's father -- have resorted to expected accusations and torch-and-pitchfork antagonism. Pushed over the edge with only his lawyer, Lee (Max Minghella), keeping him tethered, Iggy awakens one morning to discover that he has sprouted small horns upon his forehead and that people have started acting very strange around him, divulging what appears to be their dark inner desires. Amid this new uncanny complication and unaided by the police, he sets out to learn the truth about Merrin's death ... and why he's looking a bit demonic.

Things don't really kick into gear until Iggy "earns" his growingly conspicuous protrusions, which also marks the point in Horns when the story shifts into odd comedic surrealism. Not so much for the horns themselves: the ambiguity behind whether people will or won't see Iggy's devilish marks, potentially hinged on their moral fabric and impressions of him, creates some anticipation before and during each conversation. Instead, it's the peculiar effects he has on those around him that are perplexing, whether it's strangers or friends and family, who shift into ostentatious and vulgar expressions of what they're feeling and wanting to do. Director Aja, working off an adaptation of Joe Hill's book from Keith Bunin, blurs the line separating the internalized desires of the people around Iggy and whether his new demonic presence draws it out of them. When they're possessed by this "devil mode" and start confessing and acting on their darkest desires, disregarding sin and normal human decency, it creates an awkwardly jarring streak of bogus character moments, mainly because it's intentionally unclear why Iggy's transformed into this beast amid his languish.

Horns also revolves around the unraveling (murder) mystery of Merrin's death and the complications of Iggy possibly being responsible, but it never strikes a consistent balance between those ideas. Director Aja presents a credible, somewhat endearing story about the romance between Iggy and Merrin that flashes back to their youth, showing how their lifelong chemistry took shape through simple gestures and flirtations, yet Iggy's past and enigmatic motivations obscure the reason he's dealing with the horns in the first place. The vagueness of his guilt or innocence -- eliciting shades of Dorian Gray and The Machinist -- muddies the somewhat-philosophical meanings underneath the schlocky premise, losing track of whatever it'd like to say about guilt, sin, and blame through the eyes of the devil-horned accused. Despite an idiosyncratic attitude and bizarre sense of humor, coupled with a great taste in melancholy music bolstering its surreal energy, the situation unjustifiably forces a despondent and chaotic atmosphere around Iggy in which we're purposely unsure if he deserves it all.

Daniel Radcliffe turns in another solid, subtly transformative performance that makes Horns considerably more worthwhile, convincingly navigating the supernatural and moral wildness surrounding Iggy's situation. He wears the boozy haze of youthful tragedy surprisingly well, concealing his accent and channeling his charisma into a melancholy personality that branches away from the other gloomy characters he's embodied in What If and The Woman in Black. Once the spark of alarm and confusion ignites when Iggy sprouts the horns, Radcliffe delivers the right amount of restraint and panic as he scrambles to figure out what's going on and how to fix it, preserving the despondence of his character as he starts his own independent look into Merrin's death. Much of Horns relies on Iggy's crumbling composure and the ways his body language responds to the acts of deviance and hostility around him, and Radcliffe's distinctive overcast charisma goes a long way towards enriching his torment.

Alas, Radcliffe isn't enough to salvage the bungled intentions underneath Horns' execution, awkwardly fusing together dark, outlandish wit and commentary on morality as it descends into a strange tonal mess. Surrounded by a bombardment of answers about the truth behind Merrin's death, director Aja shapes the source material's finale into a manipulative and befuddled jumble of revelations, weakened by numerous gaps in logic and jarring changes in the characters for the sake of surprise. So much fire and brimstone, so much sin and volatility, slithers its way through Iggy's discovery that it seems like too much is going on without the proper justification for each humdrum twist and turn, lacking either macabre tension or actual concern for Iggy's fate as he embraces the "gifts" bestowed upon him. There isn't a point at the end of these Horns, only the disarray left by cliche villainy and romantic retribution gone up in flames.

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