Cast: Keri Russell, Jesse Plemons, Jeremy T. Thomas, Graham Greene, Scott Haze. Directed by Scott Cooper.
When a poster proudly proclaims that “Guillermo del Toro presents”, you expect a few things. A eloquence of language, a love of monsters, a dissection of what monstrous means, possibly Doug Jones or Ron Perlman. But his producing chops are not his directing ones. Despite giving us work like The Orphanage or Mama as a producer, his output lacks the del Toro magic. Enter Antlers.
Based on the short story The Quiet Boy, Antlers follows recovering alcoholic elementary school teacher Jules (Keri Russell) as she attempts to restart her life in rural Oregon. She’s haunted by the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father following her mother’s death and the guilt of leaving her young brother Paul (Jesse Plemons) behind, now he’s the sheriff and both of them are concerned about a local child – Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas).
From the off, this appears to be a film right in the wheelhouse of director Scott Cooper. His previous films, Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace, Black Mass and Hostiles all appear to have lead to this film. The spectre of alcoholism from Crazy Heart, the small town blighted by opioids and job losses of Out of the Furnace, the desire to make good on your duty from Black Mass and the exploration of Native American culture through white eyes of Hostiles. Cooper is a moody director, he can create a sense of place, be it the Boston setting from Black Mass or the misty mountains on show here. The rain damp atmosphere of rural America is perfectly captured and the sense of a town in decline is ever present.
What Cooper, who co-writes the screenplay with C. Henry Chaisson and original author Nick Antosca, can’t do is create a cohesive marriage of themes. The film is first and foremost about abuse, bringing to mind the work of Mike Flanagan, and the metaphor is ripe for investigation. Looking at the story, it’s about how abuse once visited on a person can corrode them and turn them into something else. That the looming spectre of abuse is something that is generational. This is ripe for mining for emotion and scares, the true horror being the crimes people commit to their children.
The issue is that the film is often too focussed on gore and jumps to fully explore what it’s setting up. There are comments on the current climate of big business killing small town – Plemons pointedly says his job as sheriff has become evicting people from their homes, but little is done with that. Moreover, the story of Russell trying to help Thomas is undone by ridiculous things. At one point she presents a notebook of scary drawings as proof of abuse. Thomas, looking like a Tim Burton drawing come to life, is skeletal, in the same tatty clothes and dirty face – people comment his house smells of death so why doesn’t he? He looks like hell for most of the film, that’s your sign.
The film is filled with cliches – the ginger bully who gets his deserved feels like it’s from an 80s films, while the venerable Graham Greene is wheeled out as the former sheriff to dump Native American exposition about what is going on in a way that feels pandering but also misguided. There’s talk of both Wendigos and skin walkers, but none of the folkloric quality that underpins most work by del Toro or stronger filmmakers. A better film would explore Native culture and lean into the more fairytale quality. That said, the film is not without high points.
The film’s opening ten minutes is nerve shreddingly tense, and some of the other moments of body horror hurt to watch. There’s also a nicely played nihilism to the tone where it becomes clear that things are not going to be alright. Both Thomas and Russell are sublime. Russell is so rarely utilised in film the way TV work like Felicity and The Americans has. Here she gets to play several shades, and moments where the film lingers on her concerned face is some of the most unsettling. The desire on the film’s part not to show the beast for most of it’s runtime works in it’s favour and has a feeling of The Thing, a lot of warping of the human body and the mind before the crazy monster stuff starts happening.
Ultimately, the film is simply not as as strong as it could have been. Despite strong directing, and some great performances, the film doesn’t always convince the way it should. Once again, though, Cooper proves he knows how to direct with mood and style, and Russell offers one of her best film performances for years.