Review: Antlers

Director: Scott Cooper

Stars: Jesse Plemons, Jeremy T Thomas, Keri Russell

The small coal mining town of Cispas Falls, Oregon has fallen into economic decline, breeding a sickness of poverty and addiction that manifests strange and terrible beasts here in Scott Cooper’s Antlers. Presented in a washed out, wintry palette that chimes with the sense of the ruinous present in every dank corner of this tale, what the film lacks in levity it more than makes up for in atmospheric dread and analogous meat.

And I was going to try to edit down my purple prose.

Delayed long enough for (Fox) Searchlight Pictures to fall under the province of Disney, the film itself is about as far-flung from the House of Mouse as one could reasonably expect, and its modest Halloween release seems about right for something that it’s new owner wouldn’t ordinarily green light in the first place. The sense of get-out-and-get-rid isn’t surprising, but it does undersell what’s on offer.

A clipped prologue presents us neglectful father and addict Frank Weaver (Scott Haze), who falls foul of a large, unseen beast as his youngest son Aiden (Sawyer Jones) waits for him at the mouth of the abandoned mine that doubles as daddy’s meth lab. Cut to three weeks later and Frank’s slightly older son, Lucas (Jeremy T Thomas), is still attending school, but he appears increasingly haunted and beleaguered. When his teacher, Julia (Keri Russell), finds some rather disturbed drawings inside his desk, she suspects abuse at home.

At the rundown and isolated homestead, we witness Lucas preparing meals of raw meat for his ‘sick’ father and younger sibling. Lucas carries a lot of responsibility for a boy of twelve; keeping his increasingly monstrous kin locked behind closed doors and cleaning up after them while shrouded in a gas mask.

For Julia, the leap to abuse similarly comes from a place close to home. Temporarily living with her brother Paul (Jesse Plemons) – who is also the town sheriff – the film sketches in a background of prolonged trauma at the hands of their mentally ill father. Thus, her attempts to fix Lucas’ situation read as a belated yet sympathetic attempt to right irrevocable wrongs.

Antlers‘ opening stretch can seem a little frustrating, as it bucks a lot of popular horror trends. Exposition and theorising is largely left to the back-end of the picture. Cooper prefers to coyly tease us with pieces of scenes and snatches of imagery, asking us to decipher the codes between people that tell of their unseen backstories. It looks and feels like a film that’s had the shears taken to it, but grow accustom to its rhythms and deliberate shiftiness, and there’s plenty to appreciate even here as Cooper builds our investment.

Mid-film transformations and the implementation of the First Nations myth of the wendigo go some way to transforming the nature of the film itself. The further in you get, the more of a traditional monster picture it becomes. Plemons is given the thankless role of the rational lawman, but his take on the reluctant skeptic brought face-to-face with supernatural evil is as well-acted as any I can think of. He brings genuine humanity to what has become – over more than a century of such cinema – a rather rote archetype.

The relentlessly grim mood of the piece is its greatest weapon and – no doubt – it’s most off-putting element. Modern blockbuster cinema has all but erased the notion of a serious film, especially one with fantastic elements. Antlers treats its subject matter with unblinking sincerity. It is first and foremost a tale of child abuse, but it is also about the social and economic circumstances that breed such acts of casual evil. The choice to isolate Lucas as a child-grown-older, desperately trying to hold onto the notion of family no matter how damaged, is a crushingly sad one. While the film’s merciless denouement may simply prove too dark and depressing for some audience members (I saw walk-outs).

For those that make it through, what’s offered is a humourless but emotionally giving fairy tale. Here (in)human fallibility is presented as a kind of infection. Made before COVID and shelved until now, Antlers contains some eerily prescient notions of incubation and eruption. Though they’re miles apart, a mid-film set piece can’t help but feel spiritually linked to Alien.

And while, at the time, I found the finale remarkably cruel and troubling if taken as part of an overarching metaphor for mental health, it plays more powerfully as a heartbreaking portrayal of something else… Unfortunately this would take us way too far into spoiler territory. Ask me again in a number of months or years, by which time – one hopes – Antlers will have found its audience and will be rightly looked back on as a grown-up monster movie sat in isolation from most of the pop culture that surrounds it.

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