As movie titles go, “Antlers” seems ready-made for one of two holidays — either Christmas or Halloween — and it’s kind of a shame to see it squandered on the latter. Now what is some enterprising filmmaker supposed to call his revisionist Rudolph story when the time comes? The name’s a somewhat less obvious fit for director Scott Cooper’s somber, character-centric stab at supernatural horror, although it makes sense once you realize that this slow-burn, Oregon-set monster movie is centered on the Native American “wendigo” legend, whereby an evil spirit possesses people and transforms them into deadly elk-horned creatures with an appetite for human flesh (in this iteration, at least).
Cooper has dabbled in many a genre across his five-movie directing career, although there’s been a consistent darkness to it all that puts horror squarely in his wheelhouse. Executed with style and perhaps a bit too much self-importance, his work has traditionally focused on the fault lines of the American condition, be it violence (“Black Mass”), racism (“Hostiles”) or addiction (“Crazy Heart”), and all of those themes come crashing together here to chilling effect.
What makes “Antlers” so disturbing isn’t the movie’s tension- and dread-building mechanics so much as the way the filmmaker burrows into the minds of his two main characters: abuse survivor-turned-elementary school teacher Julia Meadows (Keri Russell) and her soft-spoken student Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas), in whom she’s able to recognize red flags that remind her of trauma she experienced as a child. Something incredibly wrong is happening at home for Lucas, and Julia is well suited to identify the problem and intervene on his behalf — or so “Antlers” argues, although that “it takes one to know one” philosophy can feel a little simplistic at times.
Developed and essentially godfathered by producer Guillermo del Toro, the movie is based on Nick Antosca’s short story “The Quiet Boy,” which the author adapted with co-writer Henry C. Chaisson. In Cooper’s hands, it retains the central element of a teacher showing concern for a boy saddled with far more responsibility than someone so young should have to face. The most effective horror movies aren’t merely about frightening the audience — although this one has a few genuinely freaky scares — but exploring the deeper social issues that unnerve us. In this case, we’re confronted with a small American town on the decline, where employment opportunities are scarce, opioids are plentiful and relations with local Native Americans are overdue for a reckoning.
Following an ominous opening scene in which Lucas’ dad, Frank (Scott Haze), and younger brother, Aiden (Sawyer Jones), are attacked by a giant creature in an abandoned mine, Julia notices a certain darkness in her student. Asked to share a story in class, Lucas tells one much too bleak for someone his age. Upon further investigation, she finds a pile of drawings stashed in his desk that look like they could have been done by a serial killer, all sharp teeth and bloody animals. Her alarm may seem obvious, but keep in mind, no one in town knows what happened in that mine, nor are they privy to how Lucas spends his time after school: trapping wild animals, cutting them up and feeding them to Frank and Aiden, who are kept growling/whimpering behind a heavily bolted door.
Horror movies featuring terrifying transformations are usually motivated to let the monsters out, where they can rack up the victims for the benefit of bloodthirsty audiences. In this case, whatever havoc the wendigo might wreak on the town is nothing compared with what it’s doing to poor Lucas at home. There, with his father out of commission, he’s forced to play hunter, father and decision maker, and the weight of that responsibility is clearly eating him alive — to say nothing of the bruises and lacerations on his frail body.
There are multiple metaphors at work here, the most obvious being the overplayed cliché of an angry Native spirit seeking revenge for what the white man has done to exploit land that wasn’t his to begin with (it’s “Poltergeist” all over again in that respect). Far more unsettling, if you’ll pardon the pun, is the movie’s focus on how a child copes with being forced into the adult role when his parents are otherwise incapable. When Julia’s police officer brother Paul (Jesse Plemons) explains that Frank is a junkie, we understand that Lucas has probably had to step up in the past, caring for his brother when Dad was absent or high.
Flashbacks to Julia’s own complicated childhood — coupled with none-too-subtle shots in which she struggles to resist buying liquor at the local market — reinforce the connection she feels with Lucas and why it’s so important to her to protect him, no matter how awful his domestic situation might be. She has no idea what she’s in for, of course, but facing it serves as penance for Julia’s running away all those years earlier and leaving Paul to deal with their abusive dad.
At a certain point, the wendigo does get loose, resulting in the carnage audiences were probably expecting all along. (The creature design is somewhat disappointing — inadvertently comical almost — until it’s revealed that the beast is still wearing Frank’s face like a mask.) In any case, that stuff isn’t nearly as scary as what Lucas is dealing with, especially when it comes time for him to accept that Frank and Aiden can’t be saved and must instead be destroyed. The psychological scarring is nearly too much to imagine, though del Toro doesn’t shy away from subjecting kids to such hell.
It’s become a genre necessity that movies like this can never entirely kill the monster, but it would be a mistake to misread the ending as a crass sequel setup. Just look at what Julia obliges Lucas to do and now consider what’s asked of her.