Horns, based on the novel by Joe Hill, tells the story of Ig Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe), a young man made a pariah in his own hometown after being suspected of killing his girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple). Everyone except his brother (Joe Anderson) and his best friend Lee (Max Minghella) treat him like he’s the devil. And then one day he wakes up with horns on his head. Just as alarming is the fact that the horns seem to have given him the magical ability to make people reveal their darkest secrets. After accepting that the horns aren’t going to go away, he decides to use his newfound powers to find the real killer of his beloved Merrin.
The film ends up spending too much time on the question of who killed Merrin. The answer is obvious pretty early on, the movie never presenting any compelling suspects other than this one character. Inexplicably, the film doesn’t spend too much of its time focusing on its most interesting aspect: the horns. Once the murder mystery takes center stage, the supernatural elements become more vague and more ill defined. The film struggles to connect to any larger themes as it relegates its central image to the background, treating it mainly as a convenient plot device.
The film, which runs nearly runs two hours, runs out of steam about halfway through. The main character is made to play to catch up with the rest of us, since he seems to be the only one who hasn’t figured out who killed Merrin. This quest might have been more interesting if it had a more coherent theme, but the film never does decide what it really wants to say. It hardly explores the consequences of Ig embracing this darker side, of him deciding to act more like the devil that he looks like.
This is a premise that seems designed to tackle big questions about the nature of good and evil. But as presented in the movie, it’s all just very half-baked. Rather than explore what exactly is happening to Ig, the film takes long detours into flashbacks, and plays out a procedural where most of the clues lead nowhere. Director Alexandre Aja does lend this story some visual panache, the film looking like a dark fairytale through most of its runtime. But some of that appeal is negated in a finale that employs an unappealing excess of visual effects.
An appealing cast of actors is mainly squandered on underwritten roles. Daniel Radcliffe has gained a lot of presence as an actor, but the film never seems sure of what it wants Ig to be. Juno Temple is an amazing performer who just isn’t given a lot to do. The actress is made more of a symbol than an actual character. Max Minghella can be tremendous when given strong material, but here he is kept so far into the sidelines that he is unable to bring any sort of shading to his character.
It is perhaps worth noting that in the novel, Horns reveals its villain pretty early on. It doesn’t bother with the pretense of an investigation; the novel much more interested in what it all means to the character. The film seems altogether too determined to give the film a standard movie structure, the kind of thing that people have come to expect from unchallenging movies. It’s an awkward fit for this story, which has much bigger questions to answer.