No one can fault Antlers, distinguished director Scott Cooper’s first foray into horror, for lack of ambition. If anything, it attempts to tackle too much. Had writers Henry Chaisson, Nick Antosca, and Cooper stuck to exploring its themes metaphorically with real depth, such as the plight of indigenous people in this country, or the dire straits of life in one of America’s meth capitals, the film would’ve potentially achieved instant classic status. But, alas, the narrative becomes oversaturated with touched-upon but underdeveloped topical subjects, like bullying, childhood abuse/trauma, and environmental deterioration.
The movie looks incredible, though, and builds tension masterfully. Its powerful central performance by the mega-talented young actor Jeremy T. Thomas alone is worth the price of admission. Most importantly, Antlers is frequently genuinely terrifying. I’ll take Cooper’s flawed, cerebral monster flick over David Gordon Green’s dumb-as-nails rehash Halloween Kills any day.
Taking place in a remote, dingy Oregon town – a church, a school, a few houses, a bunch of meth labs, surrounded by breathtaking nature – the story follows 12-year-old Lucas (Thomas), son of a local drug addict. The boy’s familial struggles intensify after a mythical, vengeful spirit possesses Lucas’ meth-head father, Frank (Scott Haze). To make matters worse, Lucas is harassed by his peers at school. No one seems to care, save for the kindly teacher Julia (Keri Russell).
“The boy’s familial struggles intensify after a mythical, vengeful spirit possesses Lucas’ meth-head father…”
Julia is haunted by her own trauma, having escaped the s**t-hole years ago. She’s now come back to confront her demons, as well as her brother, the local sheriff, Paul (Jesse Plemons). With the authorities dismissing his case, and multiple other ones entirely, Julia takes matters into her own hands. So down the rabbit hole she goes, encountering ghastly, deer-like manifestations of age-old myths along the way.
There’s little levity in this tale. Cooper takes his subject matter seriously, perhaps a little too much. This is as bleak as big-budget filmmaking gets. Unfortunately, the script also lets him down. When a movie takes its time to build momentum, it helps when the verbal exchanges are at least somewhat memorable. I’m not asking for Aaron Sorkin sharpness here, but Ari Aster’s Hereditary and Midsommar, or Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, are great examples of dialogue done right in psycho-horror features. The most memorable exchange in Antlers involves a character exclaiming, “Jesus Christ!” to which Paul responds something in the vein of, “I’m afraid Jesus isn’t around.” Clever.
Cooper is an excellent director, though, and with each consecutive feature proves to be a connoisseur of the cinematic mise-en-scene. A sequence about halfway through serves as a masterclass in technique (it involves Lucas’s father transforming after ripping someone to shreds). The slow reveal of the beast is effective. As unflinching as he is when portraying gore, the filmmaker’s unafraid to delve deep into raw, psychological terror. With tremendous help from cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, Cooper juxtaposes the awe-inspiring beauty of the Oregon wilderness against the ugliness of the events that unfold, therein emphasizing humanity’s penchant for senseless (self) destruction. Producer Guillermo del Toro’s touch is evident in every frame, imbued with symbolism and allusions to ancient lore.
The exposition-heavy, cluttered finale, wherein the plethora of thematic elements collide and threaten to implode, almost undoes the painstakingly built-up sense of melancholy/paranoia. Yet it’s refreshing to see a wide release aspire to be something more than just another creature feature, slasher, or zombie gore-fest. Antlers has something to say. It should’ve just spoken less, and more eloquently.
"…refreshing to see a wide release aspire to be something more than just another creature feature..."