Maybe one or two were all we needed. Scott Cooper's horror genre dalliance is a misery feast.
It's hell out there. Never mind the creatures in the shadows. We've got plenty of man-made evils sloshing across our landscape. In a film like Antlers, a literal monster is actually a relief. Scott Cooper's foray into the horror genre comes packaged with plenty of ordinary miseries: the oxycontin plague, child abuse, incest, and the apathetic system that maintains those atrocities. When the big tall, spindly critter starts gnashing on folks, you'll find a calm release escaping your lungs. Phew, these poor souls are finally free of their wretched meat sacks. Can some beastie come eat me, so I no longer have to sit through this depravity-parade?
Now, that sounds like a big thumbs down from this reviewer, but you gotta respect the thick spread of ick Cooper accomplishes with this flick. The director establishes a nightmare environment for his characters, and it's enough to tether your concern for those doomed fools trapped inside his frame. You ache for his characters, but you also resent the filmmaker for pushing them, and you, through the slaughterhouse.
Antlers primarily follows a young kid named Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas), whose brother and father suffer a ghastly encounter while good ol' dad is baking Oxy in an abandoned mineshaft. While he adjusts to what this encounter does to them, he still attempts a normal life by attending school every day. But the horror he sees at home clearly scars his psychology, and Lucas' teacher, Julia (Keri Russell), distracts herself from her own deep-seated trauma by digging into Lucas' plight.
Along with her brother, Sheriff Paul (Jesse Plemons), Julia investigates a series of brutal slayings peppering the town's perimeter. These bodies appear in pieces, shredded, and covered in...human teeth marks? Eventually, the body trail brings them to indigenous local, and Paul's former boss, Warren Stokes (Graham Greene). He explains that they're facing a Wendigo, a mythological malevolent entity that suffers a bottomless hunger for human flesh.
Antlers is not the first film to steal this First Nations monster for spooky movie purposes. A Wendigo haunts Ravenous, The Last Winter, Dark Was the Night, and is seemingly to blame in the 2019 Pet Sematary. Cooper wants the creature to operate as a metaphor for the many societal ills devouring the poor, white population, but it ultimately comes off as just another case of bland cultural appropriation. The story really doesn't want to reconcile with its Native origins, using Graham Greene only as expository shorthand.
Cooper consulted with an indigenous filmmaker (Chris Eyre) when putting Antlers together, but the film still has no use for its indigenous characters, pushing them to the background while using their stories to heighten white pain. The Wendigo in Antlers deserves his vile transformation, a direct result of his sins, and his victims deserve to be munched by him because they ignored the circumstances that allowed those sins to take root. The narrative's mythological theft comes off as woefully ignorant, distracting the viewer from whatever Twilight Zone messaging Cooper is attempting.
Which is a shame, because Russell and Plemons are fantastic in the film. As awkward siblings who ran away from each other years ago, trying to reconnect while stumbling through the damage bestowed upon them as children, they hit every scene with profound force. Remove the monster from Antlers, and there's a movie worth watching right there.
Antlers also suffers from terminable anticipation. Like several other films, COVID-19 forced Antlers to push its release date twice during the last two years. In that time, Scott Cooper's producing partnership with monster maestro Guillermo del Toro (as well as David S. Goyer and J. Miles Dale) grew into an impossibly tantalizing possibility. Walking into any film with such a "gimme, gimme, gimme" attitude is deadly, causing its failings to sting just a little more severely.
Quickie Review: Antlers is a brutal monster movie slog. Scott Cooper layers a dreadfully murky atmosphere, and it is punishing. Russell, Plemons, and Thomas deliver gangbuster performances, but the Wendigo execution feels like a child pulling an action figure from the toy box. 6/10