Scott Cooper has explored Native American culture (Hostiles) and the economically-depressed (Out of the Furnace), but with the Guillermo Del Toro-produced horror Antlers he combines the two along with a healthy dose of freakish gore. Unfortunately, the intriguing mix produces few scares and dull performances from actors we expect a lot from. For all of its delving into Native mythology, there’s not much story to speak of.
A heavy prologue sets Antlers firmly in the realm of fable and folklore, warning of a creature that stalks the planet in Mother Nature’s defense. We are soon introduced to Julia (Keri Russell), a schoolteacher returned to her gloomy, foggy small town in Oregon after having fled to California for 20 years. She’s moved in with her brother Paul (Jesse Plemons), the town sheriff, who she had left to fend for himself in an abusive home. So there’s a lot of pent up resentment there, and we come to understand her longing looks at the alcohol bottles between the convenience store counter.
Julia gets involved in the life of her student, 12-year-old Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas), who has all of the signs of an abused child just like herself. But little does she know that Lucas holds a terrible secret that explains why his meth-cooking father and younger brother have been missing. Meanwhile, a series of bodies begin piling up all around town, appearing to have been devoured by a beast of unknown origin.
There are multiple demons at play here, and in theory they should work in concert. Julia’s awareness of Lucas’ traumas, combined with his natural fear of authority figures and the protectiveness of his family make for some believably fraught conversations. Russell and Thomas are so good, especially the latter in what I believe is his first major film, that you wish there was a better, more coherent story surrounding them. Individually, they sleepwalk through a film that is constantly on autopilot. The tension never escalates, the scares don’t mount, nothing really matters.
But it doesn’t seem that Cooper, along with co-writers C. Henry Chaisson and Nick Antosca, have a firm idea what the movie is meant to be. It starts as a warning about the damage being done to the environment but that isn’t an angle that plays out convincingly, even with great Native American actor Graham Greene popping up to wag a finger. Plenty of blood, guts, and gore will make some squirm, but the monster’s vicious attacks are poorly shot so as to rob them of any ability to terrify. The cloudy atmospherics work in capturing the town’s social and cultural rot, and if this were Cooper making another Out of the Furnace then it would work. But the decaying forests and barren streets don’t evoke the creepy mood that Antlers needs, and lack the creative flair that we’ve come to expect from anything with Del Toro’s name attached. Cooper is an immensely talented filmmaker but his skills are in the depiction of human decay, not the supernatural.
Antlers opens in theaters on October 29th.