Antlers Review: A Rare Misstep for Scott Cooper

With the name of celebrated horror auteur and Oscar-winner Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) receiving a prominent place in marketing for Antlers, it wouldn’t be surprising if semi-observant audiences assumed that he was involved in more than just a producing capacity. Unfortunately, del Toro didn’t write or direct this crushingly plodding and drearily dismal entry in the folk horror sub-genre.(Presumably, he was involved in the adaptation on some level.) Instead, director Scott Cooper (Hostiles, Black Mass, Crazy Heart) did as his first foray into horror. On the strength of Antlers — or rather the surprising lack thereof — Cooper shouldn’t venture into horror-themed territory again.

Working from a muddled, middling script co-written with C. Henry Chaisson and Nick Antosca (whose short story, “The Quiet Boy,” forms the basis for Antlers), Cooper delivers a handful of conventional scares. But he builds everyone around a woefully underdeveloped premise, IQ-challenged characters, and, to be fair, a reasonably well-realized monster derived from myth and legend. That monster, however, barely makes an appearance in Antlers. When it finally shows up in all its animatronic glory, the end credits are just ten minutes away. A squandered opportunity, no doubt, but obviously the result of Cooper’s decision to approach Antlers less as a supernatural horror film than as a melodrama centred around generational trauma haunting two separate, if eventually intertwined families.

Set in an economically hard-hit, perpetually overcast town in Oregon (actually Vancouver, British Columbia), Antlers centres on Julia Meadows (Keri Russell), a onetime self-exile who’s returned to her hometown after decades away. A dedicated schoolteacher, Julia gradually begins to take interest in one of her preteen students, Lucas Weaver (Jeremy T. Thomas), a lonely, malnourished outcast prone to scribbling nightmarish imagery in his notebooks. With a traumatic, unreconciled past of her own, Julia sees in Lucas something of a kindred spirit. He’s a smart, sensitive, talented child who, like Julia decades earlier, lives in an unstable home teetering on the verge of collapse.

It’s far, far worse than Julia suspects, of course. She doesn’t realize she’s living inside a supernatural horror film. (We, of course, do.) Lucas has somehow acclimated himself to a truly horrific situation, one where he’s taken on the role of parent and provider to his father and younger brother. While it’s not a situation that can last beyond a few days or weeks, Lucas plays a terrifyingly high-stakes game of denial with himself and with what’s left of his family. Concerned for Lucas’s long-term well-being, Julia eventually obtains the reluctant assistance of her younger brother, Paul Meadows (Jesse Plemons), the town’s sheriff, the elementary school’s principal, Ellen Booth (Amy Madigan), and Paul’s weary, retired predecessor, Warren Stokes (Graham Greene).

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Stokes egregiously delivers the occasional info dump about the local area’s troubled history and Indigenous mythology. Otherwise just, he looks slightly perturbed by the sudden, precipitous drop in the local population. Stokes exits Antlers almost as quickly as he enters, although  he’s nevertheless treated with a measure of dignity and respect. Other, barely sketched-in secondary characters aren’t as fortunate as Stokes, making willfully idiotic decisions at crucial, life-threatening moments either to mark time around Julia and Jeremy’s converging storylines or to raise Antlers’ body count to a reasonable level.

IQ-challenged characters are nothing new in the horror genre, of course, but given Cooper’s desire to imbue Antlers with atypical, genre-transcending seriousness or gravity, it’s a major misstep bordering on parody. Antlers isn’t helped by Cooper’s unsubtle, heavy-handed approach to his themes, specifically generational trauma. For Cooper and his co-writers, nothing is subtext. Everything’s text, repeatedly, painstakingly revealed through dialogue or the occasional, awkwardly placed flashback. Nothing is ambiguous, left open to interpretation, but must be explained away regardless of sense or logic. Oddly though, early hints of the monster’s connection to colonialism, genocide, and environmental exploitation go nowhere.

Still, for all of its story- and theme-based deficiencies, Antlers does deliver a few, if far too scarce, gorily effective shocks, especially in the second half when the monster begins to make regular appearances. Add to that a top-flight, fully committed cast, including Russell, persuasive as a woman struggling with the spectres of a traumatic past, and a perfectly calibrated turn by the wide-eyed, expressive Thomas, and Antlers becomes fitfully watchable. Fitfully watchable, though, is far from enough where a film with so much potential like Antlers should be concerned.

Antlers opens theatrically on Friday, October 29th.

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