Antlers Synopsis: In an isolated Oregon town, a middle-school teacher Julia (Keri Russell) and her sheriff brother Paul (Jesse Plemmons), become embroiled with her enigmatic student, Lucas (Jeremy Thomas). Lucas’ dark secrets lead to terrifying encounters with a legendary ancestral creature who possesses a stranglehold on the damaged community. The film is an adaptation of Nick Antosca’s short story Quiet Boy.
The Disney/Fox merger has generated clunky conditions for the titles Fox ownership left by the wayside. Some films were reconstructed to fit Disney’s ever-present brand synergy (Free Guy and Ron’s Gone Wrong both include post-production inclusions of Disney mythos), while other high-profile titles have been reduced to unceremonious releases (Last Duel and The New Mutants hit theaters with little marketing and fanfare).
Perhaps the biggest culprit of Disney negligence comes with writer/director Scott Cooper’s horror debut, Antlers. Finally hitting theaters after spending a year and a half on the shelf, Antlers lumbers into theaters with its fair share of dysfunctional struggles. That said, this grisly creature feature unnerves audiences where it matters most.
I’ve always been a fan of Scott Cooper. His eye for rustic textures has gone overlooked in a world full of showier arthouse auteurs, with intimate dramas like Out of the Furnace and Crazy Heart exploring lingering demons through weighty deep-dives into the harsher side of human conditions. Cooper’s background makes a transition toward horror’s macabre despair a fitting change of pace – both in terms of his bleak filmmaking style and familiar thematic staples.
From the start, Cooper and Cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister embed audiences into the dreary muck of the small-town Oregon setting. Every frame feels covered in unshakeable grime that manifests a distinctly broken sense of place, setting the tone for a narrative that effectively delves into the shared trauma behind its three protagonists. Cooper and co-writers Henry Chaisson and Nick Antosca approach horror trademarks with a compassionate eye for character-driven dynamics. The trio’s effectively patient approach allows Julia and Lucas to develop a solemn rapport branded from the fires of adolescent turmoil. Stars Keri Russell and the skilled-beyond-his-years Jeremey T. Thomas elicit emotionally-compelling performances from their withdrawn characters – while Jesse Plemmons continues his run as one of the industry’s sturdiest character actors as Julia’s emotionally-distant brother.
Cooper’s immense talents come to life through Antler’s horror craftsmanship. The washed-out colors behind his Oregon setting are only made more ominous through the director’s pointed framing choices. From the endless darkness of creepy hallways to the grotesque body horror behind each bone-mangling kill, Cooper delves into the genre’s nightmare frights while infusing his sensible thematic touch. The decision to frame most of the horror from Lucas’ adolescent perspective adds a whopping punch to each setpiece. His youthful naivety conjures a premating sense of fear from the larger-than-life demons that lurk in his shadow.
Antlers develops a strong base, but its second-half struggles to build upon that foundation. Whether it’s a byproduct of post-production meddling or a far-too busy screenplay, the film’s ambitions lie outside the narrative’s grasp. The script’s integration of zeitgeist realities, such as the opioid epidemic and Native Americans’ displaced culture, don’t add up to much – while an airtight 99-minute runtime prevents the material from delving into the full extent of its trauma-based conceits (Jesse Plemmons’ role is the most undercut by this, with small facets being introduced before ultimately going nowhere).
While inherently uneven, Antlers still digs under viewers’ skin through its horror and thematic approaches. I am glad the film has finally found the light of day, and I hope it finds an accepting audience eventually.