The damage we do, the scars we leave, were once said to be invisible. More likely now, they’re so constant and present that they just fade into the background. So much noise, so much violence to people and places, that we look down and just keep walking. That can only go on so long, though, a point co-writer/director Scott Cooper wants to make with Antlers. Creepy and effective, the horror film might have been an impressive but smaller domestic drama — thankfully, there’s a pretty decent monster lurking out there in the woods of rural Oregon.
Working from an earlier script from C. Henry Chaisson and Nick Antosca (Channel Zero), Cooper makes no bones about this being a monster movie. The creature makes its first attack — tastefully offscreen — in the first couple of minutes, and we’re left knowing that a small child is at risk. His father Frank (Scott Haze) and a friend are stripping a mine site for metal, two more meth heads scrabbling for cash in a town full of them. But they’ve awakened something hungry, hungrier than their addictions.
A few weeks later, new middle school teacher Julia Meadows (Keri Russell) struggles to connect with her students, especially the withdrawn and clearly abused Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas). Her Principal (Amy Madigan) sympathetically lectures her about how little they can actually do — even when the barely literate Lucas tells a story in class about the monsters that are his home life. Julia’s brother Paul (Jesse Plemons) gives Julia much the same shrugged shoulders; as Sheriff, he’s seen how ineffective he is when the system and society has failed an entire town.
All the while, Cooper provides background noise about that failure — radios and televisions constantly play horror stories about the environment, opioid addiction, and more directly, the feeble hopes for mining to come back. It’s a throwaway point, but of course that “new” method of mining would do terrible damage to the local environment. Is it any wonder something wants to strike back?
Antlers has a co-producing pedigree of David S. Goyer and Guillermo del Toro, and the tastes of del Toro win out. It’s a slow burn in Cooper’s vision, establishing the patterns of abuse in the Meadows’ pasts and effectively making the point that Lucas’ life would have been miserable — and set on repeat — even if his father weren’t slowly becoming a hungry spirit.
When the monster part of this movie really gets going, the script isn’t too awkward in tying in indigenous mythology. Any opportunity to give First Nations actor Graham Greene a decent role works — at least he’s established as the retired Sheriff, and not just some crazy local blathering about monsters in the woods.
Back to that domestic drama element — Antlers is really well acted, if not always deeply drawn. Cooper only draws the outlines of backstory, and his ensemble mostly carries it as subtext. It’s welcome, it’s thoughtful, and almost distracts from the creature that’s coming. Both Russell and Plemons feel real, and making his screen debut, Thomas is a rare piercingly honest actor for a 12-year-old. Handling impressive horror moments as Thomas’ younger brother, Sawyer Jones may just break your heart
The ideas behind Antlers don’t all quite connect up in the end — sometimes because of required horror film moments — but there’s still something of substance here, balanced with plenty of earned scares. It’s moody, atmospheric, and trusts the audience to connect the dots that the evil that men do lives on after them. Will we survive it?