ANTLERS is a Faltering, Frustrating Folk Horror Tale

Scott Cooper’s first foray into Horror hungers for thematic weight but ends up hollow

I love Scott Cooper’s films because of their compassionate yet unflinching look at how men create monsters out of themselves. Whether it’s via substance abuse or neglect as in Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace, or out of misguided pursuits of power and greed like Hostiles and Black Mass, Cooper recognizes how the painful hunger that can drive us all is often filled by something more evil and corrosive. The worlds his characters inhabit are equally rust-ridden and run-down, which also speaks volumes about how these people are able to find the strength to live in spite of these crippling flaws. This evocative struggle against ruin inside and out fueled my excitement when Antlers was first announced as not only Cooper’s first horror film, but one that dared to tackle America’s most ancient of self-cannibalizing myths: the Wendigo. The legendary consequence of daring to cross the taboo of consuming human flesh, this fiery First Nations myth seems ripe for reinterpretation in today’s environmentally ruinous, perpetually divided climate. However, like many of the film’s intriguing yet and ill-resolved plot threads, Cooper bites off far more than can be chewed within Antlers’ runtime. The result is an earnestly explored yet shapeless exercise in socially conscious dread, fueled by fertile concepts yet spends too much time spinning its wheels to head out to territory worth exploring.

Julia Meadows (Keri Russell) has returned to her isolated Oregon hometown to rebuild her life in the wake of her abusive past. Wracked with trauma from abandoning her brother Paul (Jesse Plemons) to escape their abusive father, and struggling at each turn to avoid the easy escape of alcoholism, Julia buries herself in her work as a middle-school teacher. But something isn’t right with young Lucas Weaver (Jeremy T. Thomas), who spends his school time drawing violent, gnarled creatures or carving antlers in his desk, hiding the belongings amongst books on trapping animals, Native American legends, and a fraying copy of the Bible. Tentative visits to the Weaver home suggest a long history connected to the town’s many meth labs, but strange noises from a locked room upstairs stoke fear in Julia. Despite a rising body count, Julia receives ineffective guidance from her school and brother Paul, who struggles to explain these incidents as the reluctant local Sheriff. It’s clear Julia must take matters into her own hands… though doing so will pit her against an ancient creature whose hunger threatens to consume them all.

To much of Antlers’ credit, there are many effective moments in Antlers, each one borne of Cooper’s eye for evoking the right atmosphere and tone from his actors and setting. The small town we’re set in tells its own story from scene to scene, one of shuttered mines and fleeing families, with lines longer at the recovery clinic than the ice cream shoppe next door. The same anxious hope is present in Thomas’ Lucas, who resorts to grisly acts of desperation to keep his monstrous family alive in the hopes they’ll someday get better. It’s also in Russell’s Julia, who earnestly tries to steer her students away from their parents’ crippling paths despite her school’s ineffective administration and her own brother Paul’s reliance on red tape rather than pursue an active (though illegal) alternative course of action. Cooper directs these moments well, with a cast of familiar players from his past films (Plemons! Rory Cochrane!) each providing their own lived-in color to Cooper’s equally familiar canvas of grit and dread. It’s remarkable, too, how Cooper’s strengths as a director of rust-belt misery transpose to horror. Early on, Antlers inspires a gut-churning unease in its flickering lights in dark, blood-spattered family homes and red-and-blue police lights stumbling upon a carcass indiscernible between man and beast.

But Cooper’s greatest strengths often become Antlers’ greatest weaknesses. The slow-burn nature of the story feels more like a damp wick of dynamite constantly being extinguished, as the characters ruminate in repetitive scenes that alternate between bludgeoned hints about their past or furtive glances at another corpse or disturbing drawing. While soaking in the rich dread of a horror film, far too much time passes until the characters actively confront the possibility of the supernatural–forcing Cooper, Henry Chaisson, and Nick Antosca’s screenplay to rely on a sudden dump of exposition and left-turn character decisions. This shift makes Antlers feel like Cooper and company are finally turning Antlers into the Horror film it promises to be at its start, but almost against the film’s own will. What’s more, it takes a fertile concept of Horror rooted in indigenous mythology and sidelines its own creators as mere relayers of monster rules and third-act signposting rather than feature them as characters in their own right.

It’s around here that Antlers feels like it’s missing too much to form a coherent whole. Scenes either dump an unnatural amount of exposition, end abruptly, or feel disjointed from the sequences they belong to. A sudden explanatory montage of the degrading of Lucas’ family takes viewers by surprise as if seeing a reel from earlier in the film suddenly spliced into the second act. This approach is at large through much of Antlers’ thematic concerns, as well. How often do we need to see Keri Russell glance at liquor bottles on a shelf as a cashier waits for her to make a decision, or see Lucas feed the monsters upstairs with another animal without much in the way of progression or regression to contrast these scenes from one another? Where Antlers teases the possibility of new territory to explore, such as what might have happened to Paul in Julia’s absence, the film detours once more to another thematic idea, another hint of horror, another rumination on trauma. Most disappointingly, what is easily one of the best jump scares of 2021 squanders its goodwill by trying to repeat the same scare not once, but twice in a row to characters who somehow don’t hear these events happening in succession despite their proximity to one another. Given a more headstrong, confident approach, this could be a dynamite horror film with an equally biting social message on familial and environmental abuse. However, Antlers dulls the pointedness of its scenes by hitting the same repetitive notes in an increasingly frustrating and slipshod manner.

Antlers is a film that bears the likeness of its monster in the most disappointing of ways. It’s hungry for each of its intriguing themes, but feels all the more hollow once they’re pursued; it shapeshifts to fit what moment it craves, but never fully takes on its identity; and it wears the mask of a genre it never feels like it fully belongs to.

Antlers opens in theaters on October 29th courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

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