Scott Cooper’s Antlers was one of my most anticipated films of 2020, back when it was still going to be released under the Fox Searchlight Pictures banner. Its trailer spoke to me in a haunting, beautiful voice that let me know it was everything I was looking for in a moody, atmospheric, small-scale horror film. As the film was produced by Guillermo del Toro, and was Cooper’s first foray into directing horror films, I was pretty pumped to see what the duo could pull off…and then COVID hit, sending the April 2020 release date off into oblivion. I was heartbroken and there were many points where I proclaimed Antlers to be the one film that I wish had been made available to me during the pandemic, but Searchlight didn’t budge. Over a year and a half later, right before Halloween 2021, Antlers was finally, and graciously, released to the world, and it was due time that I got what I had been waiting for so eagerly through a seemingly never ending pandemic.
And it was…underwhelming.
Antlers follows Julia Meadows (Keri Russell), a school teacher in rural Oregon, who recently moved in with her brother, town sheriff Paul (Jesse Plemons) following the recent suicide of their abusive father and Julia’s commitment to being sober. When Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas), one of Julia’s students, begins to show signs of abuse at school, Julia investigates his home life to determine the well-being of her student, whom she shows a pitying fondness to. What Julia, and eventually, Paul discover, is a secret far more mystically horrifying than what they expected to walk into, with an ancient, malevolent entity living in Lucas’s home.
As someone whose favorite film of 2021 is The Night House (another long-delayed Searchlight Pictures horror film), I’m very versed in how modern horror uses, and sometimes exploits, abuse and grief as vessels for horror, and when it works, it works wonderfully. The Night House’s slow, gradual build to a reveal so nihilistic it feels cruel, or even Hereditary’s first act twist, or Midsommar’s pre-credits opening — it’s been done well to produce some truly stomach-churning results. Antlers, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily know what it wants to do with its horror, and can’t decide where it wants to stand whether as a parable for abuse or as simply a nasty little creature feature. It can be both, but there is not a time where Antlers feels like it’s working to meld the two. This leaves the entire affair feeling a bit incomplete on both sides.
That being said, there are some elements to Antlers that do work that prevent it from being a disaster by any means. The film, shot by German cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, is a beauty to look at, in all its ugliness. Antlers is a gray, hazy film, but one that utilizes the natural, if rustic, beauty of coastal Oregon in all its flavors, savory or not. It does do that somewhat annoying “Let’s make this one scene a different aspect ratio” thing that I’m getting rather tired of in films looking to be a bit more “artistic” than its mainstream counterparts, but I digress. Mixing this with the trademark del Toro monster design results in a lot of understated flash to Antlers which creates a wonderful atmosphere as a base for the film, even if the atmosphere alone can’t make it interesting as a whole.
Also successful in Antlers is the unsurprising commitment by the main cast. Russell, so soon off of her acclaimed role on The Americans, brings a really lovely softness to Julia, one that can often be frustrating when her demons come into play, but it creates depth to an otherwise empty character. The same is also said for Plemons, one of the finest actors of his generation, showing that title off wonderfully by making a very uninteresting character relatable and sympathetic. Thomas, in his feature-film debut, really steals whichever scene he’s in, though, and with good reason, as he’s really the only character with much depth in this. Cooper puts him through it throughout the entirety of this film, and this young actor absolutely commits to the often horrifying things this boy has to endure.
Underrated actor Graham Greene also shows up in the film, which would usually be a positive, but his presence highlights one of the more frustrating elements of Antlers in how it trivializes indigenous legends, and downplays the presence of indigenous characters as a whole, to simply exposit spooky folklore for the white protagonists and then disappear for the remainder of the film. Antlers is a bare-bones depiction of the Algonquin wendigo, and Greene only shows up when it’s convenient for the character to inform either Russell or Plemons on what to expect from it, or how to deal with it, never actually giving his presence much purpose beyond that. It’s simply frustrating in how uninterested it is in exploring authentic, far more frightening folklore at the heart of this story, rather sticking to the more digestible horror for the masses.
Antlers also has the problem of simply throwing too many storylines in the air, with no real intention of catching them before they come crashing down all at once. Seemingly important plot points, like ones involving the parental abuse that Julia and Paul suffered at the hands of their father and how this mirrors the “abuse” being dealt to Lucas tangentially, simply go nowhere and really only feel present to give the characters traumatic depth, but only succeed in making the film feel rather lazy in how trauma is used as a horror device. Having things such as this present in a horror film does not automatically justify their presence without solid, meaningful developments either in character or plot. This does neither.
Antlers has good elements, particularly in how stylishly atmospheric it is with its cold, yet lush aesthetic of coastal Oregon. The film also is helped by actors much better than the screenplay surrounding them. Unfortunately, the film begins to falter the second any sort of attempt at adding depth to both the characters, or the narrative is made. This leads to an empty, problematic use of both indigenous folklore and trauma as modes for horror, neither of which land as the film doesn’t want to take the time to authentically flesh out either of those elements in lieu of a much blander, straightforward horror film. Great special effects, cinematography, and acting can get you far, particularly in horror, but it gets you nowhere near the finish line without something unique driving the screenplay. Antlers ends up just rather blunt because of that.
Antlers Special Features:
- The Evil Within – Co-writer/director Scott Cooper gives us a glimpse of the many complex layers at play in his approach to making Antlers, a horror film about very human concerns, and his most ambitious film to date.
- An Exploration of Modern Horror with Guillermo del Toro – Producer Guillermo del Toro traces the lineage of elevated horror in cinema. Employing his encyclopedic knowledge and passion for the horror genre, he discusses the connection between mythology and human behavior.
- Artifacts and Totems – The filmmakers discuss how they created this world of a small, tight-knit Northwest community of working-class Americans in bringing Scott Cooper’s vision to life.
- Gods Walk Among Us – An in-depth exploration of the digital and practical effects used to create the film’s primal creatures.
- Cry of the Wendigo – Discover the fascinating folklore behind the wendigo from the film’s First Nations consultants. Learn about the creature’s mythic origins and about its connection to man’s betrayal of the land.
- Metamorphosis – At the center of Antlers is a transformative performance by Scott Haze. Hear about the actor’s preparation for filming, including how he lost some 70 pounds in order to play a deeply tragic character.
- Comic-Con @ Home with Scott Cooper and Guillermo del Toro – Steve Weintraub moderates this candid Comic-Con@Home 2020 Panel interview with Guillermo del Toro and Scott Cooper. Hear the filmmakers describe their process, and learn who some of their filmmaking heroes are
Available on digital December 21st, 2021.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD January 4th, 2022.
For more information, head to the official Searchlight Pictures’ Antlers website.
Final Score: 2 out of 5.