Don’t hang your horror hopes on these ‘Antlers’
Antlers is finally here. Originally scheduled for an April 2020 release date, Disney/Fox delayed again to February 2021 before finally releasing it on Halloween weekend. With its somber tone, dark lighting and captivating cinematography, Antlers would be perfect as a straight-up Wendigo horror folktale. But any goodwill built by the aesthetics on display in Scott Cooper’s fifth film is quickly undone by the script’s plodding insistence that the darkness and the monsters are definitely metaphors.
For Antlers is not just a Wendigo tale about how unchecked greed and consumption will destroy us all. The script takes the haunting campfire tale qualities of Antosca’s short story ‘The Quiet Boy’ and spells out every open-ended thread.
ANTLERS★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: Scott Cooper
Written by: Scott Cooper, Nick Antosca (based on his short story), and Henry Chaisson
Starring: Keri Russell, Jesse Plemons, Jeremy Thomas, Amy Madigan, Graham Greene
Running time: 99 mins
In this movie, the Wendigo is also a symbol of child abuse, drug abuse, systemic trauma, the opioid epidemic and the way we destroy the environment, stretching the metaphor so thin over all of those topics that it cannibalizes any salient point that the movie might made about just one of them. What’s worse is that the filmmakers provide no commentary on any of the issues they present. Antlers is a film about darkness that understands darkness is bad, but also just a fact of life, so why bother turning on the light?
It starts promisingly enough. A young boy, Aiden, stands guard as his father Frank delves deep into an abandoned coal mine to cook meth. Suddenly, he hears…something. Some type of creature screaming. He investigates, and sees that his father and his father’s friend have both been eaten by…something. Soon, the monster takes the young boy into the darkness as well.
Cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister crafts this prologue with a keen eye for lighting and blocking, always keeping the creature slightly off-camera as the scene is lit by road flares. The icky creature work is haunting, too, though you’d expect nothing less from producer Guillermo del Toro. And this sequence is expertly edited by Dylan Tichenor, never relying on jump scares but instead on slow zooms and short cuts.
We soon learn that the doomed young boy has a brother, Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas), who is a student in Julia Meadows’ classroom. Julia (Keri Russell) just moved back home to live with her brother Paul (Jesse Plemons), who is the town sheriff. Julia and Paul have had a traumatic past full of abuse; we know this because of music cues and oblique flashbacks, and also because half of their dialogue is explicitly about this abuse. Paul is out of his depth as sheriff, perhaps as a response to his failure to intervene in his father’s abuse of his sister. We’re left to wonder about the specifics, because Julia and Paul aren’t characters as much as metaphors. Russell and Plemons are such great actors that they get a lot out of the script, but it would have been nice to see them get more to do.
Anyway, Julia tries to take Lucas under her wing after he makes up a very disturbing take on Goldilocks and the Three Bears in English class. Unbeknownst to her, he’s hiding a secret at home—his dad Frank and brother Aiden are still alive, but they’re Wendigos. Lucas is keeping them fed with roadkill and trapped game. But he knows they’re dangerous, so he tries to keep them locked up. And they stay locked up until Julia tries to find out more about Lucas’s home life. Once Frank and Aiden escape and Paul and Julia learn more about Wendigos, it’s a race against time to stop the monsters from eating Lucas—and the rest of the town. (I should note this is a movie about an Algonquian legend that features just one Indigenous actor, Graham Greene, who pops in for a few minutes to explain the Wendigo to our white protagonists.)
That summary might seem like it gives the movie away, but it really doesn’t. Antlers concerns itself first and foremost with being about something, but as a metaphor, not as a plot. As much as I hate the term, this is an “elevated horror” movie if I ever saw one. Merely scaring the audience comes second to commentary. While horror as a genre is ripe for metaphor and allegory, the best horror films still scare you while saying something about the state of the world.
Antlers is plenty fightful, but doesn’t have anything interesting or concrete to say about its disparate themes of abuse, cyclical trauma and the state of America’s coal mining towns. Cooper, known for showcasing poverty-stricken America in films like Out of the Furnace, Black Mass and Hostiles, has always struggled with portraying that poverty and suffering in a way that means something. Antlers is no different. It just presents these very real horrors and sheepishly shrugs, failing to imagine a world or a movie with a hopeful outcome.