Directed by Scott Cooper from a screenplay by Cooper, C. Henry Chaisson, and Nick Ancosta (who wrote the short story the film is based on), Antlers is uneven, but unequivocally intriguing and dark. Produced by acclaimed director Guillermo del Toro, Antlers has been a long time coming, postponed by delays and changing studios following Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox, of which Searchlight Pictures was a subsidiary. The film has a lot going for it even when it doesn’t always know what to do with parts of its story. Despite being all over the place, Antlers can be gripping and potently disconcerting, with good character development making up for its pitfalls.
Set in Oregon, Antlers follows Julia Meadows (Keri Russell), a middle school teacher who has returned back home after several years to rebuild her relationship with brother Paul (Jesse Plemons), the local sheriff. While Julia adjusts to being back and getting her class engaged about storytelling, she takes notice of Lucas Weaver (Jeremy T. Thomas), a quiet student she believes faces abuse at the hands of his father Frank (Scott Haze). However, Julia and Paul soon find out Lucas is hiding more than one secret about his family, one that involves a supernatural creature who threatens the townspeople.
Antlers is far more interesting when it’s focused on the elements of human horror. Julia is drawn to Lucas because she recognizes abuse when she sees it and the film alludes to the cruel treatment, the malnourishment, and the behavior that denotes such domestic atrocities. Julia and Paul’s sibling dynamic parallels that of Lucas and Aiden’s (Sawyer Jones), Lucas’ younger brother, and the close, protective characteristics on display in these two relationships cannot be understated. It’s the driving force behind the film and what will keep viewers riveted, even when the rest of the story stumbles. The eerie sense of dread washes over every aspect of the film, with the hardships in their lives — financial and personal — elevating the tension and making it more palpable.
Antlers is quietly unnerving, slowly building out its story before ramping up some of the intensity. Cooper allows the audience to sit in the discomfort, in the everyday horror that plagues the characters who are at the fringes of society, forgotten and unattended to. That Julia takes notice of Lucas at all speaks to the connection they have (she and Paul were also abused by their father) and simultaneously shows how much Lucas was previously overlooked and neglected by everyone around him, forced to fend for himself. The screenplay’s strength lies in these character relationships, offering enough to care about them and their wellbeing, but keeping some of the darker portions to the imagination. While the supernatural aspects of the story typically work together with the human ones, Antlers misses the mark in this respect, only loosely tying the creature with the protagonists. Even the character building only goes so far, discussions hinting at more without thoroughly diving into the issues existing between Julia and Paul.
Jeremy T. Thomas and Keri Russell in Antlers
The horror and supernatural elements fall short, as does the suspense, never quite gripping or entirely terrifying. The darkness of humanity is far scarier here than the creature that lurks in the shadows, with Antlers’ creature spending most of its time in the dark and some of the scarier aspects of its lore discarded. What’s perhaps most disappointing is the choice of mythology — the wendigo is based on Indigenous lore, originating with Algonquian-speaking peoples — didn’t provide an opportunity for Indigenous actors to appear in the film. Only Graham Greene, a First Nations (Oneida tribe) actor, is in the film and his role is to explain the creature lore to Julia and Paul; he’s never seen after that. To that end, there’s a sense of authenticity that is lost, with Antlers relying on Indigenous stories while actively leaving them out.
Antlers is ultimately an uneven jaunt into the gruesome depths of darkness, both supernatural and human. It has moments that are deeply haunting and disquieting. The characters aren’t throwaway caricatures whose existence is solely meant to drive the plot, which makes the film’s exploration of their lives all the more interesting in relation to the overarching creature lore, even when it could have done more to elevate both.
Antlers was released in theaters on October 29, 2021. The film is 99 minutes long and is rated R for violence including gruesome images, and for language.