It's hard to totally dislike Horns, Alexandre Aja's new genre-bending film that mixes an eternal love story with hellish fantasy, brutal violence, and pitch black humor. Just by virtue of the fact there's so much going on, Horns is semi-entertaining at worst. But its problems overshadow its virtues: The tone is scattershot and random; the first and third acts are paltry bookends to the insanity that happens in the middle; and the cast is simply not up for the movie's humor.
Horns begins romantically, Ig (Daniel Radcliffe) and his girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple) kiss in their secret treehouse they've known since their shared childhood under the forest canopy of Washington state. Theirs is a love eternal. But in the present, Ig is hounded by the press as the main suspect for Merrin's brutal rape and murder. He insists he's innocent and even swears off God, blaming him for the loss of his love. Is Ig the hero or the villain?
The next morning, Ig wakes up with horns sprouting from his forehead. He also finds people are now acting strangely in his presence. They reveal their most inner secrets to him and nobody seems to notice the new horns. Ig has no idea what's happening but he soon realizes his new powers will help him find Merrin's killer.
Narratively, Horns has no rhythm. Aja insists on narration and flashback to reveal background, and both devices are shoehorned into the flow of the present-day tale. Horns is based on the book by Joe Hill (Stephen King's son) and it tries to mimic the novel's structure. The flashbacks are especially frustrating as Aja sloppily transitions by traveling back in time with Ig as he remembers something. So while we get a glimpse into the character's past, he's apparently just staring off into space in the present.
Ig, Merrin, and the film's supporting characters all grew up together and share a past that essentially tells us everyone loved Merrin and wanted her so any of them could have killed her. That conceit works and is the key to the film's mystery: Who killed Merrin? But it's nothing we haven't seen before. The idea of childhood friends living out their old problems as adults is an overused trope (Sleepers, Mystic River, every Adam Sandler movie). It's a microcosm of the story's creativity.
There are a lot of overused ideas in Horns, but there's one great one. The notion of the devil as anti-hero hasn't been seen in modern film. Lending Ig his powers, which reveal the true dark nature in everyone, is hugely compelling and the biggest reason to see the movie. The problem is the tone is all over the place. Horns has scene after scene of people confessing to Ig, but they're all given a sharp comedic edge. How is any of this funny? Even the most heartbreaking confession, Ig's mother telling him to go away, comes off sarcastic. The script, by Keith Bunin, doesn't capture the novel's biting humor.
At the other end of the spectrum, the film is robbed of any real feeling or depth. Aja mistakes melodrama for character development as most of Ig and Merrin's love story, which is supposed to be this grand thing, feels contrived. Maybe its all these British actors playing Americans. Maybe its David Bowie's "Heroes," the most overused, played out song in movie history, scoring all the love flashbacks. Maybe its the combination of Radcliffe's pre-pubescent voice and his unsightly chest hair. Whatever it is, Horns doesn't earn these scenes and Radcliffe and Temple seem plunked in the middle of bad network TV.
As the film meanders towards its conclusion, Horns devolves into textbook thriller fare. All of its devilish ideas go up in smoke as the killer is revealed anticlimactically and Ig is essentially tortured, reborn, and tortured again. Aja, ever the horror disciple, slips in some ultra-violence and offensive language to fill his shock quota. And the truth of Ig and Merrin's relationship is revealed. None of it will surprise you, and the film's promise of a twisted, supernatural finish flames out in the ashes of CGI snakes and dry ice.