The first teaser for Scott Cooper’s Antlers dropped a full two years ago, back when Searchlight Pictures was still owned by Fox. You can watch the teaser on YouTube and see the Fox Searchlight logo pop up at the beginning, like a cursed artifact from the past. The scant teaser, under two minutes, played a scene from the film where Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas), a troubled kid in small-town Oregon, reads a disturbing short story he wrote for his class. His teacher, Julia (Keri Russell), looks on with concern at the nervous, wizened child, while a threadbare piano tune ramps up with escalating intensity. Lucas’s voice carries on over an ambiguous collage of shots from the film that become more and more disturbing. From the teaser, it was near-impossible to piece together what the film was going to be about. At the time, it had felt like a strong indicator of what was to come. The trailer is vague and deeply unnerving, and no matter how many times I was forced to watch it in the two years since COVID-19 pushed Antlers’ official release date, it always chilled me.
Directed by Cooper (Out of the Furnace, Hostile), co-penned by Nick Antosca—whose short story, “The Quiet Boy,” the film is adapted from—and boasting an executive producing credit from Guillermo del Toro, Antlers is far from the film I felt the teaser promise. It’s something that became clearer over the past year, as the teaser gave way to full trailers, where additional plot details were added and the mythic creature, the Wendigo, was name-dropped. It’s my own fault for putting so much naïve stock in a film promo meant to generate interest by being as abstractly unsettling as possible. But when it comes to recent horror films, I am so frequently disappointed that I will happily latch onto anything that purports a welcome change from the same self-serious, ham-fisted metaphors that tend to populate the modern genre output. And what’s that saying? “Fool me once…?”
Julia Meadows is a recovering alcoholic, who recently traded her life in sunny California for her backwoods, rural hometown in Oregon not long after the death of her father. Russell carries Julia with the invisible weight of the abuse survivor that she is, her violent memories triggered by something as simple as a seat at her family’s old piano. She takes a teaching job at the local elementary school and reconnects with her sheriff brother, Paul (Jesse Plemons), who is fatigued by the evictions he has to implement on the impoverished locals. Now living together under the roof of their childhood home, tension prickles between the two estranged siblings due to the circumstances of Julia’s initial departure over 20 years ago. Nowadays, their town struggles with unemployment as a direct result of the opioid crisis, so prevalent that children absent from school are shrugged off by school administrators. As we later learn, it’s not uncommon that kids become suddenly homeschooled so that they can help push drugs for their parents, and so that their teachers can’t smell the meth on their clothes and feel compelled to contact authorities.
One such child of an addict is Lucas Weaver—an anxious boy and small for his age, he keeps to himself yet is bullied, nonetheless. Lucas’s father, Frank (Scott Haze) has become somewhat notorious to Paul, frequently necessitating an administration of Narcan from the weary sheriff in order to bring him back from the brink of yet another overdose. Despite the fact that Lucas’s mother has been deceased for some time, and his father is clearly an unfit parent, loopholes and an indifferent eye have allowed Lucas and his younger brother, Aiden (Sawyer Jones), to remain under Frank’s sole care. But three weeks ago, something happened to Frank while stopping by his worksite in the mines with little Aiden in tow. Three weeks later, Lucas now harbors a secret in his ramshackle home on the hill—a secret with an insatiable hunger only for food that bleeds.
Actor Jeremy T. Thomas’s unconventional features give him a naturally uncanny look, making him concurrently sympathetic and suspicious. Why does Lucas not contact the police? Why does he not save himself? But Lucas’s mistrust in other adults and the authorities makes sense from the perspective of a child whose family has already been ravaged enough by drugs and death. He doesn’t want to lose more than he already has. From her own experiences, Julia recognizes Lucas’s behavior as that of an abuse victim. She takes a sudden interest in piecing together what exactly is going on in the child’s home life, just as Paul, accompanied by officer Dan Lecroy (Rory Cochrane) and former sheriff Warren Stokes (Graham Greene), begins investigating a string of grisly murders in which bodies are flayed of flesh and torsos are ripped from their lower halves.
Antlers opens with an unattributed quote about the pillaging of the natural world awakening the Malevolent Spirit, that which seeks “the lost, the frail, and the depraved,” and to “pray it desires not You.” The unambiguous quote foreshadows the film to come: One where every little detail is laid as bare as a gored ribcage. Flashbacks fill spaces previously left blank, the horror elements are overfamiliar and nuance is largely foregone. Cooper too eagerly wants to show you his monster, even though it’s only fully revealed in a goofy, final boss showdown. But even before that, the curtain is readily peeled back on the state of Lucas’s family, too willing to unveil scenes of slaughter that leave nothing to the terrifying, ignored realm of the unknown. Meanwhile, three simultaneous parables about the opioid crisis, cycles of abuse and climate change are unleashed into the colosseum of ideas and ultimately knock each other dead. The film tries to have its cake and eat it too—the cake being a horror film that’s being eaten alive by its own weighty metaphors.
Nonetheless, director of photography Florian Hoffmeister renders the rural Northwest landscape so richly textured you could bite into the dewdrops that ever-ensconce the rainy region, while the hovering layers of fog that blanket the mountains peer into the story like peeping Toms off in the distance. Brilliant low-light contrast keeps the hazy daytime shots consistently dense, even if grayscale in color, and night scenes in Lucas’s home profoundly isolating. Of course, it’s an area of the world gifted with a natural feeling of otherworldliness, that which once emboldened the locale of a horror-adjacent show like Twin Peaks. There are also some creature effects (though seemingly mostly computer-generated) that are creepy, but the most disturbing sights are the delightfully bloody bodies—even if we are allowed to see too much of them.
The film, which makes use of Native American myth, relegates its one prominent Indigenous actor, Graham Greene, to the sidelines. Greene is utilized only to offer a raised eyebrow at scenes of carnage which he recognizes as a result of the vicious Wendigo, and then to later enlighten the dubious white characters on what such a creature is. Stokes explains that to Indigenous people, the Wendigo is a cautionary tale of overindulgence and exploitation, and a myth to the rest of the world. The Wendigo originated from the story of a man who turned cannibal and was left with an unquenchable desire for human flesh. What else could that be an allegory for, I wonder? Of course, Antlers doesn’t want you to think about that for yourself. It wants to do all the thinking for you. It wants to list its allegories on a chalkboard and have Keri Russell point to them with a ruler and extrapolate on them one by one.
Antlers effectively forgets that it’s a horror film. It probably shouldn’t have been one at all. Perhaps, it would have been better served as an intimate, slice-of-life drama with toned-down poverty porn elements. Instead, it’s just another disappointing cog in the endless machine of clumsy horror metaphors that want to be seen as capital-I important, and it ends on a distinctly bleak note that offers no catharsis other than “Well, see all this? There’s not much we can do about it.” Antlers is a film that, not unlike most of its ilk, wants to be an overstuffed analogy for hot-button issues first, and a horror film second. Unfortunately, it can’t seem to get either right.
Director: Scott Cooper
Writers: C. Henry Chaisson, Nick Antosca,Scott Cooper
Starring: Keri Russell, Jesse Plemons, Jeremy T. Thomas, Graham Greene, Scott Haze, Rory Cochrane, Amy Madigan
Release Date: October 29, 2021
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.