TIFF Review: 'Horns'

You can tell quite a lot about a film by its soundtrack. Oldies betray wistfulness and nostalgia. Deference to trend suggests a certain desperation in grappling with the zeitgeist. Conspicuous obscurities are the hallmark of the braggart and the dilettante. In the case of “Horns”, director Alexandre Aja has assembled a playlist of Pitchfork-approved indie rock numbers so tastefully curated that the film often feels like a feature-length adaptation of a mixtape. The Flaming Lips score a bad drug trip. “Where is My Mind?” is slathered atop a slo-mo childhood flashback. Sunset Rubdown’s “Shut Up I Am Dreaming of Places Where Lovers Have Wings”, of all things, brings the film’s romantic final moments to a close.

Aja has said that he wanted “Horns” to be something of a rock n’ roll picture, and to that end he began attaching songs to sequences at the screenplay level, finding tracks to match the tone of a scene and building outward from there. (Aja even asked his leads, Daniel Radcliffe and Juno Temple, to put together playlists for him for further aural inspiration, making this perhaps the first-ever movie without singing to have been conceived of as a musical.)

Much can be gleaned from this approach. In terms of both style and content, “Horns” initially seems like a marked change of pace for Aja, whose roots in the vaunted New French Extremity movement of the early 2000s accounted for his forays into American camp horror more easily than the comic fantasy he embraces here. But I suspect that for Aja, the appeal of this project lay not so much in the opportunity to veer away from more straightforward genre filmmaking than in the opportunity to continuing drawing on his wide-ranging personal interests as a function of personal expression, which for his particular sensibility means cobbling together whatever aesthetic elements he regards as cool. A close look at this filmography reveals not a director of horror gradually expanding his generic purview, but rather a director fascinated by his own fleeting impulses who only happens to apply them most regularly to films founded on the traditional splatter of gore. If his instincts derive exclusively from taste, what makes his films so consistently intriguing is that his taste is good.

From this perspective it seems obvious that “Horns”, despite not being anything like a horror film, is an Alexandre Aja film through and through. That its soundtrack is loaded with likeable indie rock and pop tunes is less ancillary than actually central to the film’s appeal: the music has been provided to enjoy and luxuriate in, not unlike its high-gloss cinematography (by “Blue Velvet” and “Eraserhead” hand Frederick Elmes) and the deliberately arch, preconception-combating performances of Radcliffe and Temple. Aja’s taste, in other words, remains his best quality, and he has outfitted “Horns” with enough talent that the film is rather easy to admire aesthetically.

The problems are more foundational, even conceptual—and they are thus harder to reconcile. “Horns”, based on the well-liked Joe Hill novel of the same name, tells the story of Ig (Radcliffe), a man wrongly accused of murdering his lifelong girlfriend (Temple) but unable to muster much in the way of sympathy or legal defense. Ig awakes one morning to find a set of distinctly satanic horns protruding from the top of his skull, and suddenly anyone in his presence seems compelled to spill their darkest secrets before tearing into acts of sin.

As a premise, this is all well and good: the intrusion of the inexplicably fantastic into an otherwise ordinary world has a fable-like quality that offers ample room for philosophical musing and oblique moral inquiry. But Aja, more focussed on the practical application of Radcliffe’s transformation into the devil, opts to forgo pursuit of anything serious, preferring instead to revel in the anarchic antics incited by Ig’s every interaction. Our natural curiosity in seeing the outer limits of this concept tested—in seeing how people might react, to humorous effect, when given the chance to let loose and indulge their inner demon—proves quickly exhausted, and by the fifth or six run around these acts of sudden sin are too predictable to intrigue. It’s a shame, given the (unearned) emotional catharsis the film’s ultimately heads toward, that Aja’s noncommittal attitude wins out over the tragic dimension of the story, because it seems apparent that there could have been something more substantial here than watching doctors f**k their busty nurses or biker bar patrons whip out their dicks.

SCORE: 5.0 / 10