‘Antlers’ Review: Cooper Tries His Hand at the Horror Genre
By Daniel Rester
Scott Cooper switched his focus from acting to writing and directing films around 2009. Since then, he has delivered solid dramas with Crazy Heart (2009), Out of the Furnace (2013), Black Mass (2015), and Hostiles (2017). Now he has chosen to jump to the horror genre with Antlers for his fifth directorial effort, which was originally intended for an April 17, 2020 release before the COVID-19 pandemic happened. Based on the 2019 short story “The Quiet Boy” by Nick Antosca, the script for Antlers comes from Cooper, Antosca, and C. Henry Chaisson; Guillermo del Toro and David S. Goyer also serve as two of the producers. While Cooper’s first horror film behind the camera isn’t a knockout, it is an admirable and entertaining one for the most part.
The reliable Keri Russell stars as Julia Meadows, a teacher who moves from California back to Oregon to live with her brother after their father dies. Her brother, Paul (Jesse Plemons), now acts as the sheriff of the small and damp town. The two both have struggles with their pasts, with Julia trying to fight the urge of drinking to hide her pain.
Julia and Paul come to worry about one of her students, Lucas Weaver (Jeremy T. Thomas), whose dad is a local druggie who goes in and out of jail. After a creature attacks Lucas’ dad and brother in a mine, Lucas must deal with the consequences. With horns and burst-open bodies being discovered around town, Paul isn’t sure what to make of the deaths or Lucas’ situation. Former sheriff Warren Stokes (Graham Greene) eventually states what is obvious from the opening scenes: that Paul may be dealing with the mythical beast called the Wendigo.
Cooper’s film has a great sense of place, with the foggy and rainy fall season of the Oregon setting (actually filmed in British Columbia) lending to the cold atmosphere of the material. As an Oregonian myself, I can say the character of the British Columbia locations closely resembles parts of the Oregon coastal region. Cooper and his cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister capture the settings expertly, from old mines to closed trainyards to dilapidated houses. But why does this story even take place in Oregon when the Wendigo myth is more in line with the Algonquin people around eastern Canada?
The cast is strong all around. Russell and Plemons are believable as brother and sister, though their characters’ past issues with abuse feel underdeveloped at times. There are a few quick childhood flashbacks and instances of Julia looking at alcohol bottles, but they don’t carry much weight. Still, the actors are good enough to make the characters interesting despite the undercooked writing around them.
Thomas gives Lucas somber expressions that go a long way. He’s really the heart of Antlers as a boy struggling with parental neglect and poverty but still finding the strength to try to help people. I wish Greene had more to do as Stokes; he mostly just shows up to drop exposition about the Wendigo.
The creature and gore effects in Antlers are top-notch. There’s a less-is-more approach to the striking images here. The Wendigo is only shown in glimpses until the third act, while only a few dead bodies populate the story. But when these things do appear they are handled with expert makeup and effects. The creature itself, with its large body, split horns, and groaning noises, is scary and intimidating. The victims it leaves behind are shown in grisly detail too, with bodies ripped open and gnawed in half.
Acting as an allegory of the consequences of different forms of abuse (drug, physical, emotional, environmental), Antlers is both serious and heavy-handed. It could have used an extra twenty minutes or so to develop its themes in a smoother manner, and to give more meat to the aforementioned characters. Despite such faults though, Cooper’s first horror film is successful in other ways. The settings are gloomy and detailed, the acting is solid, and the creature and attack scenes are frightening. I hope Cooper continues to explore the horror genre further.
My Grade: 7.5/10 (letter grade equivalent: B)
Running Time: 1h 39min