Often we refer to the concept of family as the ties that bind, and for good reason. Because sometimes, our family can be the very thing in our lives that is either holding us down or they can keep us connected to some type of trauma that continues to haunt our very existence. That’s the primary theme that ripples throughout Scott Cooper’s Antlers, a harrowing, gut-punch creature feature that is shockingly bleak at times and features brilliant performances from Keri Russell, Jesse Plemons, and the precocious Jeremy T. Thomas, who is at the center of Antler’s mystery and is so heartbreakingly great in this.
In the small town of Cispus Falls, Oregon, a series of mysteriously gruesome deaths has gripped the isolated mining community, and Sheriff Paul Meadows (Plemons) is completely baffled by certain grisly details surrounding the murders. His sister Julia (Russell) is a teacher who takes an interest in one of her students, Lucas Weaver (Thomas), who exhibits signs of abuse and does everything he can to keep his distance from everyone else. As it turns out, Lucas is hiding a very big secret, one that concerns both his father (Scott Haze) and little brother Aiden (Sawyer Jones), and once that secret gets out, it results in a wave of violent attacks that will forever change the lives of both Julia and Lucas, as well as numerous other unsuspecting residents of Cispus Falls.
While I’m trying to be as vague as possible with this review because there are some absolutely breathtaking and heartbreaking reveals in Antlers, if you’ve seen the trailers or artwork for Cooper’s latest or read even just the brief synopsis for the film, then it’s not really a secret that there is a creature based in Native American lore at the center of this tale that is viciously slaughtering anyone who it happens to cross paths with, but that’s all I really want to say about that. But in terms of the creature itself, I’m absolutely in awe of how well-realized it is in Antlers, and so much of that is due to the efforts of designer Guy Davis, who has truly created one of the greatest fully actualized (meaning: in-camera) movie monsters I’ve seen in decades. It’s impressively terrifying all while staying true to the folklore it is based on, and that seamless blending of the supernatural with the realistic makes for a nightmarish monster design that should haunt even the most hardened horror fans’ psyches well into the future (I originally saw Antlers in early 2020, and this creature has stuck with me for all that time).
One of Antlers’ most effective assets is just how well Cooper as well as his fellow co-writers Henry Chaisson and Nick Antosca (who also wrote the story story “The Quiet Boy” that this film is based on) are able to craft terrifying set pieces and marry those moments with these heartbreaking, gut-punch moments of emotion that pull you right into the middle of Lucas’ hellish ordeal and really make you feel for him as a character, as the weight that he’s asked to carry in life is no burden that any child (fictional or not) should have to suffer. As mentioned, trauma is one of Antlers’ primary themes, and we see that exemplified in several ways, including with Russell’s character, Julia, who is a recovering alcoholic that still cannot shake the horrors of her childhood even after all these years. Russell has been a longtime favorite of mine (Felicity hit right at the perfect age for this writer), and even though I think she’s always done incredible work in her career, her performance in Antlers just might be her finest work to date. Plemons is yet another actor that I have adored for years (I’ll forever be a Friday Night Lights stan) and he’s also great here, and as mentioned earlier, Thomas gives a performance in Antlers brimming with pure anguish, and I hope this role leads to more opportunities for the young actor in the future.
Another reason why Antlers is as effective as it is is the camerawork from DP Florian Hoffmeister, who does an incredible job of capturing not only the dreariness of life in Cispus Falls, but also, the way he frames every single shot in this movie has this kind of impressive texture to it that really adds another layer to the visuals in ways I cannot really explain adequately. Suffice to say, you could pause Antlers at any given moment and have yourself a frame-worthy work of art, which says a lot about Hoffmeister’s talents behind the camera. Also, Cooper himself might be a newbie to the world of horror, but I think his previous experiences outside of the genre serve him well in Antlers, as he’s able to infuse his latest with a real sense of emotional stakes for all of the characters involved, where every moment of horror has a bit of humanity peppered into it as well, thereby grounding the fantastical elements of this story in a manner that feels wholly authentic.
Trauma has been a central theme in a lot of horror that we’ve seen released in 2021, but I think Antlers might be the most thought-provoking exploration of the subject matter to come along this year, as it not only taps into personal trauma, but the trauma we do to our communities and natural resources as well. It’s not often that a film will linger around in my mind as prominently and for as long as Antlers has, but that speaks to the power of this story and the performances driving this film. To me, Cooper has confidently crafted one of the best emotionally driven genre efforts to be released in some time with Antlers, and his first foray into horror is a genuine cinematic knockout that will undoubtedly stay with you long after its credits roll.
Movie Score: 4.5/5