Is Antlers, a grisly shift into body horror for the Crazy Heart and Hostiles director Scott Cooper, really about the curse of generational trauma and familial abuse? Or is it really about the grim consequences faced by a society that callously disavows the disadvantaged, allowing those on the breadline to suffer in silence? Or is it really about how white Americans should pay the price for stealing and then abusing land and culture that belongs to indigenous communities? Or is it really actually ultimately about nothing at all? Is it just another posturing post-Babadook/Hereditary/Get Out attempt to “elevate” the horror genre (a genre that doesn’t always need to be “elevated” thank you very much), too schlocky for the arthouse lot and too dull for the Halloween crowd?
If only those involved with making Antlers had any clue themselves, perhaps that would make for a more cohesive and less maddening experience but the film, produced by Guillermo del Toro, is a shapeless blancmange of extreme gore and ponderous soap, uneasily trying to do so much more than it’s capable of. There’s probably a semi-decent creature feature here and maybe, with a hefty amount of redrafting, a semi-decent human drama but as it stands it fails at both, a satisfying, coherent film buried underneath copious amounts of animal guts.
In a rural Oregon town, a young boy named Lucas (Jeremy T Thomas) has a secret. His teacher Julia (Keri Russell) is concerned – he’s looking malnourished and exhausted, spending lessons drawing nightmarish pictures, haunted by something unknown. Julia is haunted too, by a childhood of abuse that drove her away from her home, and surviving brother (Jesse Plemons) for 20 years. She’s now back and determined not to let Lucas suffer the same fate she did but what exactly is going on back at his house and why does he keep bringing dead animals home?
There’s a grinding lethargy to how Cooper and his co-writers C Henry Chaisson and Nick Antosca tease out the plot of Antlers, a pace that would feel more warranted and, in fact, welcomed, if there was all that much to tease out. But the bones of their movie are barely fleshed, a pretty simple story masquerading as something far more complex, and so we quickly grow fatigued, waiting for substance or meaning that never arrives. Plemons and Russell, two highly competent actors, make for a close-to-impossible-to-believe pair of siblings, not just as a result of physical opposition but also thanks to a total lack of connection. There’s medium effort from both but they’re stymied by a script that offers just the limpest morsels for them to chew on. Russell’s character development is limited to her guiltily staring at a bottle of whiskey at the liquor store while Plemons has even less to do, skulking around as the bemused local sheriff, both wasted on a film that doesn’t deserve them.
So while our brains and hearts are left frustratingly unengaged, it’s left to the genre elements to pick up the slack, a more efficient, if still ultimately flawed, side to the film. Cooper is able to conjure up a certain dank dread and there’s a visceral nastiness to the violence that works up until it doesn’t, as the creature at the story’s centre edges out of the darkness and into the light, but the self-serious drabness that surrounds the body horror grotesquerie sucks out much of its effectiveness. It’s a hokey monster movie that keeps urging us to take it seriously without providing us with any valid reason.
Not working on a base level as drama or horror is egregious enough but what edges Antlers from disappointing to disrespectful is how it chooses to frame its indigenous inspiration, crafting an entire movie about established mythology while keeping First Nations characters almost entirely absent. Cooper’s film kicks off with Native American voiceover to introduce the Wendigo, an evil creature previously used in multiple films and shows, but then centres white characters throughout, with just poor Graham Greene stuck in the background, called upon only to info-dump to those unfamiliar, like he’s a character in a video game. There’s perhaps something cautionary here about disrespecting land and its resources (is it also really about climate change?) but by giving indigenous people no real role or voice, Cooper’s murky message gets lost, the film committing the same sin it seems to be chastising.
In trying so hard to say something, Antlers leads to nothing.
Antlers is out in US and UK cinemas on 29 October