Director Scott Cooper's newest film Antlers delves deep into issues of abuse and trauma while terrorizing a small gloomy town with an ancient entity who has an insatiable taste for human flesh. The mythological creature is the wendigo or windigo, a cultural entity originating from diverse Indigenous populations from the northeastern seaboard and continental interior around the Great Lakes. The wendigo is a protector of the Earth, a spirit of winter, and a symbol of the dangers of greed and selfishness that exist in the world. Cooper attempts to connect the Indigenous mythos with an introduction, spoken in Ojibwe, that describes how Mother Earth is being destroyed by those who walk with greed in their hearts.
Antlers takes an Indigenous cultural cautionary tale and turns it into a brutal and gruesome horror movie. With guidance from Academy Award winner Guillermo del Toro, Cooper and the team construct an impressive creature, coordinate great performances from a committed cast, but struggle to find a satisfying pathway to move the script into a more memorable experience.
In a foggy Oregon town, an ancient creature stalks an economically depressed community. The local coal mines have closed, and residents, like Frank Weaver (Scott Haze), use the abandoned spaces for cooking meth. The wendigo arrives to punish Frank, transforming him slowly into a zombie-like monster that craves human flesh. Frank's son Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas), a traumatized 12-year old, is left to pick up the pieces of his already destroyed family life. Julia (Keri Russell), an English teacher at the local elementary school, notices the signs of abuse and some disturbing drawings in Lucas's journal. When Julia begins to investigate Lucas' home life, she discovers the disturbing truth.
Antlers, based on the short story The Quiet Boy by Nick Antosca, does a decent job of building anticipation and tension with its beautifully, horrifically composed monster. With its horned head and disfigured body, the creature's design is made more intimidating by its physical ferocity. One jump scare is so vicious that you can almost feel it. And the sound design for its guttural screams underlined by a disturbing human crying voice is entirely unsettling.
The performances from the cast are also strong characteristics here. Keri Russell plays a concerned advocate with compassion but also resilience. Her character's story is forwarded with past trauma and abuse that is seen through flashbacks. Jesse Plemons does a fine job of being the somewhat bumbling, mostly overwhelmed town sheriff trying to make sense of the mangled bodies coming into the morgue. The standout, however, is Jeremy T. Thomas, who is entirely mesmerizing and haunting as the fractured Lucas.
The problematic piece for Antlers exists with its wandering narrative. The use of abuse and trauma as core character elements, one that identifies Julia as a trauma survivor of a horrific experience and displays the anguish felt by children dealing with a neglectful parent, is present but rarely explored beyond flashbacks. The connections aren't apparent when adding these elements of abuse to connect with the wendigo myth, which is introduced as a spirit protector of the land from the greed and selfishness of humanity.
More annoying is the representation, or lack thereof, of Indigenous people and culture throughout the film. The film begins with an Ojibwe spoken proverb, a setup that feels like Indigenous culture will be represented in some way. Unfortunately, the only Indigenous character shows up to explain the myth to non-Indigenous characters. This character is played by the wonderfully talented Graham Greene, who isn't offered anything more to do than 5-minutes of being the stereotypical magical Native American. A tired and offensive trope that still exists.
Antlers is a downtrodden horror film with a fantastic creature, good performances, and mediocre and culturally problematic script. Horror fans will enjoy the gore and scares, they are pretty good throughout, but the story has issues that even the best horror scenes can't fix.
Movie Score: 2.5/5