Over two years after its first teaser trailer arrived, director Scott Cooper’s “Antlers” has finally hit theaters. The often-delayed creature feature had been highly anticipated in horror circles, and an aura of intrigue had surrounded it for wider audiences, but for myself, I somehow still managed to go into the theater completely blind.
The result shows a lot of promise – moody, atmospheric despair and a delightfully disturbing monster – but it ultimately raises far too many ideas and is unable to deliver answers to its most compelling conflicts.
Set in the foggy Pacific Northwest, “Antlers” explores tragedy in a foggy, rundown Oregon town filled with broken people. Julia Meadows (Keri Russell) is a schoolteacher from California who has returned to her childhood home after the death of her abusive father. Reunited with her semi-estranged brother, Paul (Jesse Plemons), the two are looking to rebuild their lives, both individually and together by fixing their fractured relationship. When Julia notices one of her students, a bullied child named Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas) begins showing signs of abuse and neglect at home, she decides to intervene. But what she finds at home isn’t another abusive father, but instead an ancient indigenous wendigo evil – and now she has unleashed it across the town.
Killing the monster – if that’s even possible – isn’t as easy as it sounds, though, considering the creature now inhabits Lucas’s father. Determined to protect his father and younger brother, Lucas works against the help of Julia and Paul, even if it means more harm will come to the others.
Coming in the midst of spooky season and fresh off the heels of a cheap slasher like “Halloween Kills,” “Antlers” is a refreshing change of pace when it comes to how it creates horror. Rather than relying purely on gore and jump scares – though they are both used and extremely effective – “Antlers” channels an overwhelming heaviness from the very start. The ominous dread slowly builds throughout the film and is ever present, even when a monster is nowhere to be found. This makes it impossible to sit back and relax, knowing that fear could be lurking behind every next cut, and the feeling of uneasiness won’t subside until after the credits roll.
As far as the creature goes, director Scott Cooper channels the perfect amount of monster for a monster movie, knowing when to go all-out with the beast and when to tease or pull back. With legendary monster-maker Guillermo del Toro producing, it should come as no surprise that the look and feel of the brute is as impressive as it is horrifying.
However, with the evil coming directly from wendigo myth, the film barely scratches the surface on what the mythical creature is or why it exists, save for a brief, half-hearted explanation. Furthermore, this definition comes from the former sheriff, Warren Stokes (Graham Greene), who is played by one of the few indigenous Canadian First Nations actors to have a relevant role in the film. For a story so dependent on this lore, it feels disingenuous to simply use indigenous actors to deliver exposition while the white leads carry the rest of the film.
There’s a lot of heavy stuff brought up in “Antlers” – abuse, trauma, grief, environmentalism – but it never feels as if any of the topics are ever fully explored, much like the mythology behind the monster. At just 99 minutes, an extra 10 to 15 minutes could have gone a long way towards making the film feel more complete and cohesive, rather than raising topics only to abandon them minutes later.
The performances here are all fully committed, as expected from two greats like Russell and Plemons, and the young Thomas holds his creepy own with the adults. The caliber of acting makes it all the more frustrating that the complexities of the narrative were never fully developed, because the cast at Cooper’s disposal is more than equipped to handle the heaviness of it all.
While “Antlers” delivers when it comes to scares and monsters, its plot is far too thematically overwhelming to properly execute on everything it wishes to explore.
“Antlers” releases in theaters on October 29, 2021.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.