One of the most vapid (and yet theoretically interesting) parts of film culture is the obsession with film stars, or celebrities. Although it is ridiculous to expect actors to only play a single part in a single movie, some stars become so synonymous with a role or a type of role that it shapes the entire reading of future films. This can often lead to fascinating performances and can enrich films, but it can also create a kind of critical conventional wisdom about a film just because of it’s casting before people have even seen the film.
One of the most high profile actors working today who is trying to escape their past is definitely little Daniel Radcliffe. Post-Potter he has purposely taken difficult and interesting roles with various levels of success to try and prove himself as an actor. He has performed on stage as the orphan “Cripple Billy” in an intensely dry play about Ireland in the 1930s; he has simulated gay sex as Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings; and played an egomaniacal parody of himself flicking a condom onto the head of Dame Diana Rigg in Extras. I’m sure he’s been offered a thousand rom-coms and fantasy films but it seems safe to say that he is trying to prove himself with slightly more ‘edgy’ roles.
Horns is going to divide opinion with its plot and casting before anyone has even seen it. Radcliffe plays Ig Perrish, a pariah in a small town that has been blamed for the grisly murder of his long-term girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple). He wakes up days after the murder with little memory of where he has been and what he has done, and has two demonic horns growing out of his head. At first people don’t seem to notice these horns, but instead they are affected by their presence and end up treating Ig differently (to say the least).
The narrative then pits Ig against the rest of his small town as he uses the powers that these horns give him to try and solve the real murder of his girlfriend and discover what really happened to her. This involves a number of flashbacks to happy times with Merrin and their developing and evolving sexual relationship, as well as frantic scenes of Ig confronting the hypocritical small town sinners in order to escape the gruesome accusation that hangs above him.
The film was directed by Alexandre Aje (of Switchblade Romance notoriety) and based on the book by Joe Hill (son of legendary horror author Stephen King), two people who are deeply comfortable with the darker side of humanity. And yet Horns pans out like a fairly straight morality tale taking the ‘he who is without sin…’ argument to a frankly absurd conclusion. But this is not an attack towards the narrative or its final act; it is actually deeply satisfying to see such a confident high-concept narrative pan out – i.e. what if an innocent man accused of murder could encourage the seven-deadly sinning of others to help him solve a crime.
In both my reviews of The Wolf Of Wall Street and The Hangover 3, I mention that Hollywood is starting to have fun with the depiction of drugs and slowly come round to the fact that Americans are more and more tolerant of drug use. And this is also kind of true in Horns, where there is a drug scene that is so ugly and dark it relies on the audience to really understand the effects of different drugs to really appreciate the horror. I wont spoil the scene, but I felt that there was definitely a knowing wink to the audience by highlighting how bad certain drugs can be…
And so to Radcliffe himself. I have no idea what his motivations were for taking this part, he might have just loved the book, but I must say that I commend him for taking such a bizarre role, and one where he gets more and more disguised by make-up as the plot goes forward leading to its conclusion.
The soundtrack is sometimes clumsy, and the religiosity of the plot will alienate some, but as a straight-up fantasy film Horns is ridiculously enjoyable. As all good fantasy films should it presents a world with a set of rules that audiences would want to experience or visit. I certainly know who I would talk to first if I had magic horns…