Antlers Movie Review: Oh, Dear
This week we review the movie Antlers, the long-delayed horror movie from Scott Cooper. I’m sure all those delays mean it was worth the wait, right? Right? Sure. Anyway, let’s talk about it.
Note: The movie contains references to an entity common to several Indigenous nations. However, I will not be naming the foule beaste directly and will instead be using substitutions.
Antlers, Based On a Short Story, Comes for My Short Temper
image via Searchlight Pictures
Based on Nick Antosca’s short story, “The Quiet Boy,” this film adaptation is a product of Antosca, Henry Chaisson, and director Scott Cooper. Antosca’s short story wisely avoids naming the creature. The film, unfortunately, suffers from a different fate. It’s made clear from the beginning when an Anonymous Native (whomst the credits bill as “Ojibwe Narrator”) sets the scene. We’re in for a…w-word story. (If you don’t know what I mean, the w-word rhymes with “Ben to go.”)
Anyway, Keri Russell stars as Julia Meadows, a teacher who’s recently returned to her hometown. She fled to California years ago because her dad was abusive in an especially creepy way. (The film wants you to know this.) Her younger brother Paul (Jesse Plemons), the local sheriff, was a little hurt by her leaving, but he seems to have gotten over it. Mostly. In fact, mostly he just seems happy to have her back in town. It’s a pity about all that other stuff.
For one thing, Paul and his department are finding mutilated bodies. At the same time, Julia is concerned about her student, Lucas Weaver (Jeremy T. Thomas). He tells unsettling stories in class and draws even more disturbing pictures. And his only surviving parent, his father Frank (Scott Haze), who has a checkered past, never seems to be home when the school calls. That’s especially weird, since Frank is supposedly homeschooling Lucas’s younger brother Aiden (Sawyer Jones).
Ripped from the Headlines
There is so much going on in this movie that it’s hard for me to know where to start. This is clearly a movie that wants to be About Something, but it can’t quite settle on what it’s saying. For example, we touch down in small-town Oregon, where multiple causes have ravaged both the people and the land. There’s a dead coal mine, for instance, and you can presume that its closing had a deleterious effect on the town. You kind of have to presume, though, because the movie discards this thread just as quickly as it picks it up. There’s a second-long reference to mountaintop mining, but then the films trudges on.
Similarly, the meth epidemic has torn through this town. And hey, now that the mine’s closed, it’s a perfect spot to cook meth. Well, it would be, if not for the monster hiding in the shadows. This is how the poison gets out, how it takes up residence in little Lucas’s home and makes him the new man of the house.
image via Searchlight Pictures
With this, you can see why Julia feels so responsible for Lucas. Beyond the fact that he’s her student, she believes that there is a shared history of abuse. So she keeps trying to reach him. There is actually a shared history of abuse with her brother Paul, but again, the movie gives the siblings one scene to (barely) talk about it. For a movie that wants to introduce so many weighty topics, it sure doesn’t want to give them any breathing room.
Antlers Movie Review
Because what it wants to do, in the middle of its quiet character study, is get to the monster at the end of this book. Even here, though, it offers little explanation for what’s happened. The most we get is an exposition dump from Warren Stokes (Graham Greene), the Local Native.
Cooper apparently consulted with an Indigenous academic in his preparation for the film. However, it doesn’t show in what the film gives us. Native American–and it’s always referred to as just blanketly Native American–lore is just another prop here. Or a talking point that gets a perfunctory mention. There’s no love here, no real sense of interest in or understanding of the creature who underpins the whole movie. It’s the perfect metaphor for so many big issues, including the ones this movie wants to tackle. Instead, as we learn so little about these characters, it wastes that perfect metaphor.
But that’s in keeping with the rest of the movie. Russell and Plemons are fine actors–we all know that. I’m sure they signed on thinking that they’d be making a movie that doesn’t shy away from social issues at the same time it scares you clean out of your pants. Too bad, though, that it stumbles on both missions and squanders its lead actors’ talent.
Listen, I appreciate that Cooper appreciates Native American culture, even if he doesn’t differentiate between the many different varieties of it. But if you love Native shit so much, then why is there only one Indigenous actor in this movie? (Besides the narrator who narrates exactly one thing.) Why is this story happening so far from the traditional prowling grounds of the dubya monster? Why, if this film is supposed to be an exploration of the w-word, is it so surface-level?
This movie, while technically competent, is just a misfire on so many levels. Everything feels like it clashes, from the subject matter–American rot AND a big ol’ antler monster–to the swelling inspirational music to the dark-ass palette of this film. (I was an hour into the movie before I realized Rory Cochrane was in it. I just couldn’t make him out before then.) And maybe all of that wouldn’t matter as much if it kept things moving, but it doesn’t do that, either. Earlier, I used the word “trudges” intentionally–this is a movie that drags itself to the end credits.
But worst of all–and perhaps the biggest sin for a horror movie–it’s never really that scary, not if you’ve seen a horror movie before. Now Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger in Cooper’s Black Mass? That was a horror show. And this could have used some of that cursed energy.
Antlers is (finally) now in theaters.
Are you planning to see Antlers? Let us know in the comments, on our social media, or in that one dead mine where we hang out.
featured image via Searchlight Pictures
Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf. Email her at [email protected]