Antlers – movie review

Scott Cooper, who directed Jeff Bridges to an Oscar with Crazy Heart, returns with Antlers. This eerie and deeply unsettling horror film set in a small and forgotten mining town in Oregon that has been devastated by the opioid epidemic. The film has been produced under the auspices of horror/fantasy veteran Guillermo del Toro, whose influence on the material is obvious.

Julia Meadows (Keri Russell) is a middle school teacher who has returned home after a long absence to teach at the local school. She lives in the old family home which she shares with her younger brother Paul (Jesse Plemons) the town’s sheriff. Both share disturbing memories of having grown up in the house with an abusive father, who has since died. There is tension between the two because she fled and left him to suffer at their father’s hands.

Her childhood experiences make her especially perceptive in recognising a fellow victim of abuse and neglect in one of her students. Twelve-year-old Lucas (newcomer Jeremy T Thomas) shows many of the typical signs – he is late to school, looks malnourished and dirty, and wears the same ill-fitting clothes, and his notebook is filled with graphic and disturbing drawings. His dead-beat father, an unemployed former mine worker who has turned to dealing drugs, seems to be absent. But Julia’s efforts to learn more about Lucas and what troubles him lead her to discover something far more disturbing. She and Paul encounter a mythical creature known to the local native Americans as a “wendigo”, a terrifying and malevolent cannibalistic creature of ancient Algonquin lore. Soon badly mauled bodies are turning up in the woods.

Antlers has been based on the short story The Quiet Boy written by Nick Antosca, who hails from a background in television, who has adapted the story to the screen in collaboration with Cooper and first-time feature writer Henry Chaisson. It also seems to share some themes and ideas with David Morrell’s little known 1979 novel The Totem.

The dark, moody cinematography from Florian Hoffmeister (A Quiet Passion) gives the small-town setting and the surrounding woods a suitably grey and depressing but menacing atmosphere that adds to the increasingly uneasy and bleak tone. The lighting also adds to the bleak tone. And while Cooper eschews the obvious blood and gore for something a bit more understated there is still enough gore to effectively unsettle the audience. The film shares a few themes with his Out of the Furnace as it looks at the environment and the way communities are crumbling in the wake of industries abandoning them. But Antlers also works in a more supernatural element, and the mythical wendigo creature becomes something of an allegory for what else is wrong with the town.

Cooper draws strong performances from an empathetic Russell (Waitress) and Plemons (I’m Thinking of Ending Things) here, but the standout is young Thomas, who manages to portray his vulnerability and fear with a largely silent and internalised performance. The supporting cast includes Amy Madigan as the school principal and Graham Greene as the former sheriff who provides some insight into the ancient legend at the heart of the sinister events.

Greg King

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