Antlers Directed by Scott Cooper. Starring Kerri Russell and Jesse Plemons. Plugs: None. Nearest: Cottonwood Mall.
Antlers is set in a decaying Oregon town, where a single father, Frank, is seen with his young son, Aiden, outside a mine. What at first seems like an innocent father-son bonding moment turns dark, literally and figuratively, as we see that Frank is involved in a meth lab, and promptly is attacked by, well, something terrifying with the titular antlers.
This situation comes to the attention of a teacher, Julia (Keri Russell), who lives with her brother, Paul (Jesse Plemons), the local sheriff. Julia becomes concerned when she sees disturbing (horror film cliché) drawings of scary monsters from withdrawn outcast Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas), presumably depicting his troubled family life. Julia eventually realizes that Frank is/was Lucas’s father, and Aiden his brother, and that something sinister and supernatural is going on.
The film, adapted from Nick Antosca’s short story “The Quiet Boy,” was completed in 2019 and its opening delayed several times due to COVID. The plot is based on legends of the wendigo, and the filmmakers hired a professor of Indigenous Nations Studies to serve as its advisor on Native American folklore.
It’s an intriguing premise, but one area where the plot falters is in explaining the origin of the menace. We’re told, in an Ojibwe opening verse, of an evil spirit with a ravenous appetite that possesses humans and causes them to kill and eat others. The wendigo is typically associated with winter, famine, need and scarcity.
This is Screenwriting 101: a hero (or heroine in this case) saves the day using important knowledge gleaned from a wise, often reluctant, source in the second act. In this case the wisdom is imparted from Native American actor Graham Greene, best known for his turns in Dances With Wolves and Wind River. Armed with a Cliff’s Notes-inspired, Wikipedia-summarized understanding of the wendigo, plucky Julia goes above and beyond her contractual teacher obligations to face the fearsome foe as mangled bodies pile up.
It’s all well and good to use a creature as a metaphor for social ills; it’s been done before, for example the consumerism-satirizing zombies in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). But translating folklore into cinema is a tricky task because once a menace is fixed in film it’s crystallized.
The wendigo can be seen as a symbol of social and moral decay, in this case drug addiction, child abuse, poverty, environmental degradation and so on. A folklorist or storyteller can evocatively describe what a monster “means” to the cultures that tell its stories.
A filmmaker —and especially a visual effects supervisor— will reply, “Yeah, yeah, that’s great and all, but how do I show it on the screen? I can’t sculpt or animate an idea or metaphor. What, exactly, am I designing? What are audiences going to see and hear?” In the end, Antlers is a monster movie, and the monster is terrifying indeed, with effective special effects.
Working from the premise of the wendigo, as audiences are required to do in suspending disbelief, the question naturally come up: why now, in the context of the story? There’s nothing new about economic hardship or drug abuse, especially in small rural towns. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if that’s all it takes to create a wendigo, then why aren’t they commonplace? Why isn’t the community’s response a jaded “Oh, another one?” instead of “I’ve never seen anything like this before”?
Questions like these become even more relevant when the film concludes and the conflict is (seemingly) resolved; if the wendigo is indeed possessing people more or less at will then all is lost because it will never be destroyed. You can keep killing its hapless hosts, but that’s not really going to solve the fundamental problem as long as there’s still someone alive to possess.
This leads to a bit of a contradiction (or plot hole, depending on your point of view) at the end. There’s also a bit of a red herring involving native American medicine bags, which are key to the plot because they make the connection between Frank’s death and the wendigo, but whose presence are never explained…
I strongly suspect that important material was cut for a leaner run time of 99 minutes —a common occurrence in films. Around the sixth or tenth edit, and with pressure from theaters and distributors for films to be shorter to allow more screening per day, editors and directors often second-guess their decisions: do we really need to have this dialogue in the film, or does another scene serve the same narrative function?
How many scenes that have the same theme do we need to drive the point home? There’s no right or wrong answer —and finished films are inevitably the result of hundreds (or even thousands) of decisions and compromises made along the way— but it may explain the mediocrity of Antlers. I suspect that a longer director’s cut, if one is ever released, will offer a more satisfying storyline.
The considerable narrative power and potential is squandered a bit in the last act, which abandons its folkloric and social themes in favor of routine horror film cliches. There are a few bits of clumsy expositional screenwriting, such as when dialogue explains things the characters already know (early in the film Frank tells his son that they’re going to pick up “your brother Lucas,” in case the boy wasn’t sure what his brother’s name was, or which of several Lucases they’d be picking up).
But it’s a low-budget horror film so let’s not get too pedantic because there’s a lot to be said for Antlers, starting with the cinematography and setting.
You can feel the grey dampness of rural Oregon creep off the screen. The fog mirrors the gloomy bleakness of the town, shrouded with decay and secrets (a teacher grimly tells Julia that many children in the small community don’t attend school because their parents make methamphetamine and don’t want their kids to smell of it in class, thus triggering a mandatory police check).
It’s an ideal setting for a gothic horror film, and it’s not surprising that that writer/director Guillermo del Toro is a producer on the film, as his cinematic sensibilities are (thankfully) everywhere onscreen. The special effects are impressive, in all their gory glory. The acting is effective, especially from the lead characters including newcomer Jeremy T. Thomas; unfortunately most of the other characters are underdeveloped. In interviews director Scott Cooper lamented that Greene’s part in the film, which was originally more robust, had been significantly cut in the final version.
Like many horror films that end with a climactic battle with some supernatural presence (usually at night, for dramatic effect) and then a short coda or epilogue taking place the next day, I always have to wonder how everything that happened (homicides, monster carcasses, etc.) was satisfactorily explained to authorities. It’s one thing for outsiders to be skeptical of whatever astonishing claims the heroes are reporting until the climax, but the aftermath would typically leave mountains of incontrovertible proof that would raise more questions than answers.
Antlers is a middling monster movie with missed potential, worth a watch on a dark night but wait for a director’s cut if you can.