THE STORY – A small-town Oregon teacher and her brother, the local sheriff, discover that a young student is harbouring a dangerous secret with frightening consequences.
THE CAST – Keri Russell, Jesse Plemons, Jeremy T. Thomas, Graham Greene, Scott Haze, Rory Cochrane & Amy Madigan
THE TEAM – Scott Cooper (Director/Writer), C. Henry Chaisson & Nick Antosca (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 99 Minutes
By Matt Neglia
Scott Cooper has been a fascinating director to watch in that with each new film, he seems to be tackling a different genre of storytelling. From the Oscar-winning film “Crazy Heart” to the crime drama “Black Mass” to the bloody western “Hostiles,” Cooper may not always succeed in telling his stories in a dramatically satisfying manner. Still, his films are always technically proficient without any form of genre repetitiveness. The same applies to his latest film, “Antlers,” which marks Cooper’s first foray into the horror genre. After waiting over a year for the film’s release due to delays from the COVID-19 pandemic, the final product falls perfectly in line with the highs and lows of his other offerings, albeit to a harsher degree than ever before.
Taking place in an isolated Northwestern town somewhere in Oregon, something is wrong with middle school student Lucas Weaver (Jeremy T. Thomas). Appearing pale, malnourished, and lacking in emotion, his teacher Julia Meadows (Keri Russell) suspects something is wrong and starts digging into the young boy’s personal life where she suspects his drug-addicted father (Scott Haze) is abusing him back home. She asks the help of her sheriff brother Paul (Jesse Plemons), to intervene. Reluctant at first, Paul starts to get more involved when he suspects the boy and his curiously absent father are somehow connected to a string of grizzly murders which have been happening all over the town. The secrets lead to a confrontation with a mythical creature that has taken control over the Weaver family and goes beyond the natural order of this world to something more profound, darker, and more terrifying than anyone could possibly imagine.
“Antlers” is a foreboding horror film, drenched in a cold and muddy aesthetic that is pleasing to look at compared to most other horror films we tend to see in a normal calendar year. Cooper’s technical precision behind the camera still remains a notch above the average filmmaker, as he deploys haunting imagery, with striking colors contrasted against the darkness to make his visuals pop off the screen. The creature design and gory makeup effects are also well rendered and presented. With special effects and creature design wizard Guillermo del Toro producing, such a feat is not surprising, and if “Antlers” is delivering anywhere, it’s on this front. The Wendigo, a mythical evil spirit that inhabits the town’s fears, is presented in a gruesomely horrifying way when it’s wreaking havoc on a host’s body (portrayed very well by a physical standpoint by Scott Haze) and when it takes physical form as a large earthly deer-like figure, even with CGI enhancement. Everything is presented in a threatening manner that should make for a compelling horror film. So, where does “Antlers” go wrong? The answer is pretty much with everything else.
“Antlers” tries hard to cram in many ideas for such a condensed runtime. Themes of abuse, poverty, drugs, environmentalism, the destruction of the family unit, and, of course, the wendigo mythology, which the film consulted with members of the Indigenous community on to best respectfully portray on-screen. One, maybe two of these ideas might have been able to be adequately explored in this story to make for a genuinely petrifying horror experience. Instead, the film presents these ideas and fails to thematically link them into any of the character’s own personal journeys. Each of them is left with an empty promise for what could’ve been something unique for the horror genre had Cooper simply decided not to comment on all of them. In his attempt to tackle so much, the end result is left unfulfilling and narratively frustrating on an emotional level.
Keri Russell is playing a character who has been the victim of abuse from her father back when she was a child and is struggling to cope with it even in her adult years as she longingly stares at bottles of liquor at the convenience store each day. She resists the urge to give in to her demons, but such subtlety feels too superfluous. It’s just one of many stereotypical moments presented in a movie that clearly wants us to take it more seriously and view it as something unique within the genre. Julia’s brother Paul is also dealing with the trauma of his shared childhood with his sister in his own way. However, it feels though as if these important scenes of character growth that they share with one another are cut short and not delved into deep enough to allow such talented actors to give performances we know properly they’re capable of. Keri Russell and Jese Plemons both feel like they’re sleepwalking through their performances as the dour mood of the film and Cooper’s expeditious storytelling doesn’t allow them a moment to breathe. Jeremy T. Thomas makes a notable impact as the creepy child who may be a new generational victim of abuse from his drug-addicted father. Still, other than that, no one from the cast is able to stand out enough to overshadow Cooper’s chilling aesthetic.
While the Native lore of the Wendigo is given a new feature film to spook audiences everywhere and hopefully teach us a lesson in how we’re disrespecting the earth and each other, it fails to evoke an emotional response because of how clumsily Cooper handles the characters and the many different themes in his story. Like Lucas’ disturbing drawings, you can almost make out what Cooper and del Toro are trying to convey through the storytelling. You know it’s evil and should leave a lasting impression, but it’s messy and indiscernible through the many drawn lines.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – The dark and moody atmosphere is well-presented from a technical standpoint, as is the creature design and makeup effects.