Directed by Scott Cooper.
Starring Keri Russell, Jesse Plemons, Jeremy T. Thomas, Graham Greene, Scott Haze, Rory Cochrane, Amy Madigan, Cody Davis, Sawyer Jones, Arlo Hajdu, Glynis Davies, Dorian Kingi, Andy Thompson, Jesse Downs, Dendrie Taylor, and Emily Delahunty.
In an isolated Oregon town, a middle-school teacher and her sheriff brother become embroiled with her enigmatic student, whose dark secrets lead to terrifying encounters with a legendary ancestral creature who came before them.
With his first stab at horror, Scott Cooper has crafted a bleak, creepy, deeply unnerving folklore creature feature that smoothly functions in tandem with his trademark slow-burn, moody style. Handpicked by Guillermo del Toro for the project (credited as an executive producer), Scott Cooper’s Antlers imposes a feeling of weakness that lingers throughout its 100-minute running time. That’s partially due to the freakish monster design that only grows more intimidating as it evolves from feeding (its final form is unholy, blending man and monster), but also the sensitive examination of childhood trauma that, while maybe underdeveloped in the end, is nonetheless realized with several symbolic shots.
There’s a trifecta of terrific performances in Antlers, but newcomer Jeremy T. Thomas as psychologically traumatized child Lucas, son of a neglectful meth addict (Scott Haze), is bursting with a quiet instability, barely holding it together. That also makes sense considering following an attack inside a cave, dad and brother Aiden (Sawyer Jones) are left to transform into something feral and sinister. Back at home, Lucas is instructed to keep them locked up until they heal (unlikely, given that they start to rot and look appropriately disgusting), occasionally bringing them chopped up animals to feast on (Lucas reads a book on how to trap animals surrounding the woods of this small Oregon mining town).
When Lucas does not tend to his altered family (which he starts to find a strange beauty in, since while disfigured and essentially no longer human, his relationship with his father improves), he attends school. Naturally, he is ostracized by his peers. When called on by his middle-school teacher Julia (a caring Keri Russell putting the character’s inner demons on nuanced display) to read a story, he only has an eerie metaphorical tale to tell accompanied by disturbing artwork (nearly every aspect of art design here offers up something scary). Julia suffers from her own childhood trauma (one that saw her leave for California and spiral into alcoholism, returning to Oregon following the death of her abusive father), so she quickly picks up on the boy’s unwell state of mind. To be fair, Jeremy T. Thomas exudes such tortured and off-center body language that it’s practically impossible not to assume something is wrong at home.
Julia’s brother Paul (a soft-spoken Jesse Plemons) also happens to be the town’s sheriff, with her return stirring up baggage over how he was left to deal with their dad. For the most part, they are on relatively good terms, although once devoured and mangled and identifiable bodies start showing up in the woods, they are forced to work a little bit faster getting on the same page. That still proves to be difficult since Paul seems unwilling to accept stories of Native American legend (Graham Greene shows up for a scene or two to spout some exposition and disappear, loving the film off easy in regards to how this possibly correlates to previous white crimes against humanity) explaining what he’s up against.
Again, the wisest creative choice Scott Cooper makes (collaborating on a script with Henry Chaisson and Nick Antosca, with the latter having written the short story the film is based on) is sticking to his usual slow pacing. It allows for Julia and Lucas to have serious conversations and open up to one another about their fathers, all while investigating dead bodies and trying to piece together what happened. Briefly, Antlers does focus a bit too much on his denial of the creature, but he’s a reliable presence lending a sense of grounded realism to his investigation.
The third act prioritizes dismemberment and death over characterization, although it’s not without memorable moments. Florian Hoffmeister’s cinematography mainly sticks out, capitalizing on foreboding atmosphere, using flickering cop car lighting reflecting off of characters, striking shadows, and of course, copious close-up shots of horrifically detailed murder. Some characters also feel a bit too protected from the creature during the finale, while the final fight comes across as a tad underwhelming. The emotional weight comes from these characters’ actions and how it relates to their trauma, although the film is a much more affecting piece of work when taken as a pure horror experience. Antlers is slightly uneven thematically but conveys enough through dialogue and visuals to leave an impression. You feel helpless, both for Lucas and against the nightmare fuel creature on the loose.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com