There is a confounding challenge screenwriters face when it comes to capturing the magic of the written word in the pages of a novel and channel that into a script and onto the screen. It becomes all the more tough when a novel or writer is highly thought of – such is the case with the author Joe Hill and his 2010 novel, Horns. What works on the page can often have a hard time translating to the screen in a way that doesn’t seem, for lack of a better term, silly.
Because when it comes down to it, what we imagine in our heads when we read the type of imagery described in Hill’s work doesn’t have to pass the visual test and thereby can be as fantastical and absurd as we allow it without a questioning or analytical eye to break down a visual effect and possibly become distracted. Director Alexandre Aja (Piranha 3D, High Tension) seems very keenly aware of this and often plays the absurdity of it all against itself to create a kind of tongue-in-cheek spectacle in his film, Horns that works great at times of dark humor and weirdness but robs the film of some of the tension when things should be focused and serious.
The film focuses on a sharp-tongued but soft-hearted radio DJ Ig Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe) who has had the good or bad fortune to have found the love of his life Merrin (Juno Temple – Killer Joe, Magic Magic) in grade school and stayed in with her throughout adolescence and into their 20s. This puts them right at the doorstep of the next set of life events couples face and an inevitable host of questions and worries and stress. This is almost immediately stressful to the viewer because you see the very grounded way in which their puppy-love has built into something substantial and important. This isn’t love via infatuation it is love via dedication and respect and you really don’t want to see it go bad.
Unfortunately, the way in which we come to know their relationship is post-facto because we learn almost immediately that Ig is accused of the murder of Merrin and is embroiled in a firestorm of awfulness surrounding her disappearance. His only lifelines are his childhood friend turned adult lawyer Lee (Max Minghella – Darkest Hour, Idles of March), dopey upper-middle class parents played by James Remar and Kathleen Quinlan, local bartender and longtime friend Glenna (the arrestingly lovely Kelli Garner) and Ig’s jazz musician brother Terry (Joe Anderson).
After a particularly tough night as a silent onlooker at a candlelight vigil for Merrin, Ig ends up in the arms of Glenna and wakes the next morning to find two small growths protruding from either side of his forehead. Further confusing the issues is Glenna’s erratic behavior and weird bluntness about everything from eating a box of donuts to her secret love for Ig. It as if the filter is off and Ig can do nothing to make any sense of it.
This trend grows and grows, as his horns do, and he must contend with a series of crazy and often unsettling interactions with people who seem unable to control themselves in terms of honesty and disclosure of deep, dark secrets and just unload on him. They straddle the line between funny and sad but never get totally insane – just call it an ‘id’ confessional of the most manic kind. Even with interactions with his brother and his parents at later points, none are more unsettling than that first one Glenna. She is all manner of past bad choices and low self-esteem having to play second fiddle to a version of herself she left behind long ago. Having to see someone who clearly had the world in front of them at one point uncontrollably spill this all out left a knot in my stomach for a spell – really hit home.
Ig figures out pretty quickly that this power (and his ever-growing horns) will be the key to unraveling what happened to Merrin and put everything in some kind of order. This is about as subtle as a heart attack so we see this realization coming a mile away. This is reflective of the tonal and plotting challenges this film has because we never really commit to one kind of goal and instead dance between thriller, mournful drama and absurdist black-comedy seemingly at random. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but, the tension felt in the latter moments of the film is only really generated from sequences in close succession and not everything from the start building up. Whether or not minimizing the dark humor of it would have centered the suspense of the plot is hard to say – but – you can see where those release valves happen and kind of wish they hadn’t.
What really makes the whole thing hang together though is the 150% committed performance by Daniel Radcliffe as Ig Parrish. If his commitment to the character was anything less than he gave in this film, the absurdity would overtake the suspense and the sadness of it and it would all just lie flat and drag. Instead, Radcliffe gives everything he can and keeps your eyes on him and your heart in his loss which results in a more satisfying and engaging film than maybe the outlandish setup would normally allow a viewer to have. This a fully fleshed out and fully realized character – not showy or over-the-top but totally compelling. And while he has a hell of a supporting cast (also including David Morse and Heather Graham), it is his show and you have to sit back and appreciate what he brings to the role. This isn’t a child-actor with a monster role to coast on for the rest of his life, this is someone who really brings weight and smarts to the role and it really makes the story.
Credit must also be given to Frederick Elmes for shooting against the drab backdrop of the pacific northwest and instead of muting out the light and color, embracing it to create a strong visual balance. An excellent soundtrack (and score by Robin Coudert) does a ton right too so what you’re left with is the feeling that a lot of craft went into every part of this production, camera to sound and all in between.
This is not the Radcliffe show and is clearly something well thought through and well executed given the unique challenges the source material presents. Enjoyable, if not a little melodramatic at points, Alexandre Aja’s Horns is a cool, odd film that doesn’t play for scares but more for darkness – an arguably tougher thing to pull off.