Antlers is a competently made but shallow horror effort, slathered in trauma-heavy metaphor and a questionable abuse narrative.
Writing about new horror movies can sometimes feel like a fool’s errand at a time when the genre’s meaning has been so unintelligently boiled down and reduced to ubiquitous themes of trauma and grief in films that increasingly seem to believe that a metaphor won’t come across unless the audience drowns in it. When the films are the same, there’s little to exorcise in an individual case without risking repetition. Anyway, here’s Scott Cooper’s Antlers, one of those films sold more on Guillermo Del Toro’s producer credit than its own director’s name, a horror movie about a very cool, gross looking wendigo ripping the residents of small-town Oregon apart, only with a veneer of trauma and abuse narratives slathered on top. It’s a reasonably handsome-looking horror flick, classed up by the presence of Keri Russell and Jesse Plemons, but it never really rises to anything thrilling or smart.
Russell plays Julia, a middle school teacher still haunted by the specter of her abusive father. She’s moved in with her brother, a sheriff (played by Plemons), in the house they grew up in, ground zero for her psychological damage. While teaching her class about mythology and storytelling, she begins to notice the signs of abuse in her student Lucas (Jeremy Thomas), a child so pale and malnourished as to look like a zombie. What follows is a procedural investigation leading to gruesome discoveries and culminating in a third act monster movie climax. It’s mostly fine, totally competent but unexceptional and occasionally dull for long stretches, reasonably handsome cinematography and steady camerawork standing in for atmosphere. The film is at its best when focused on Lucas’ home life, keeping the reins on the monster in his attic, in sections that produce the film’s most memorable images and manage dread better than the rest.
But while Antlers would like to present itself as meaningful, the film ultimately uses poverty, addiction, and abuse as shallow signifiers, a set of decorative antlers hung to anoint their wendigo movie surroundings with some degree of class. It’s easy enough to pick up that the closures of the mines have led to a methamphetamine epidemic — clock the meth lab in the closed mine in the film’s opening scene — and that the drug trade has become so pervasive as to even involve young children, but the circumstance never becomes more than simple setting. The same goes for Cooper’s obvious, heavy-handed paralleling of Julia’s past and Lucas’ present, her father an abusive monster and his the mythological sort. Julia’s savior complex compelling her toward Lucas gets some pushback from her brother in the film’s most intriguing, albeit still brief and shallow, excavation of its themes, but by and large abuse, physical and sexual, is used entirely to unsettle and shock in the basest way, as if a wendigo goring people with giant antlers needed an assist. If Cooper is so eager to put his cards on the table at every turn, it might have helped to have a better hand. Antlers’ invocation of its Big Idea is meaningless at best, careless and offensive at worst.