There’s plenty of trauma and sadness in the world of Antlers, writer/director Scott Cooper’s Windigo-inspired horror movie. The film, which was shot in Hope, British Columbia (standing in for a mining town in Oregon) is literally cast in gloom; the visual palette for the film is all blues, browns and grey. The sky looks as if it is perpetually about to storm and the aged buildings, the fall colours of the woods and the damp slickness of the mine all connote a desperate town on the edge of despair.
It is only fitting that the iconography of the film is so dour, but beautiful, considering Antlers is about one lost soul trying to save another. Julia ‘Jules’ Meadows (Keri Russell) has only recently returned to her hometown after a lengthy twenty-year sabbatical. She’s teaching at the local elementary school, but it’s clear from her introductory scene in the school bathroom, sighing and cradling her head, that this isn’t where she wants to be. She’s not bad at her job, but she struggles to connect with her students.
Things at home aren’t much better: she is out of sorts with her Sheriff brother Paul (Jesse Plemons). He keeps inadvertently sneaking up on her and her efforts to help out around the house only cause disruption. There’s an underlying tension in the trepidatious way that they skirt around each other: they care for the other, but she left to avoid their father’s abuse and he stayed behind and had to deal with the fall-out.
Jules is only part of the story, though. The cold open introduces Frank Weaver (Scott Haze), a caring father working in an illegal meth lab in the abandoned mine (a radio report and the opening text clearly link the film’s horrors with humanity’s disregard for the environment). As Frank goes to cook with Clint (Cody Davis), they are attacked by something, leaving Frank’s youngest son Aidan (Sawyer Jones) to wander in after them.
The final member of the Weaver clan is Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas, outstanding), who is a student in Jules’ class. Unsurprisingly Lucas’ home life quickly begins affecting his school work. After a bullying incident, Jules sets her sights on helping the lost boy, despite protests from both Paul and her supervisor, Principal Booth (Amy Madigan).
Jules’ focus on Lucas initially smacks of outdated “saviour teacher with a heart of gold” films from the 90s, an aspect that Cooper, along with co-writers C. Henry Chaisson and Nick Antosca (Brand New Cherry Flavor, Channel Zero) try to sidestep by aligning the characters’ respective traumatic childhoods. Unfortunately this is mostly a narrative convenience, particularly where Jules is concerned: Antlers includes a few brief, suggestive flashbacks of young Jules (Katelyn Peterson)’ abuse, but these exist principally as an excuse to explain why Jules latches onto Lucas.
That’s arguably Antlers biggest shortfall: the film wants to engage in heavy, complicated subject matter, but it’s mostly surface level. When it becomes clear that they’re dealing with more than petty criminals, Jules and Paul go to speak to Indigenous local Warren Stokes (Graham Greene), who recounts to them the tale of the Windigo. The inclusion of a wise, all-knowing Indigenous character who helps to inform the journey of white characters is an outdated trope that borders on the offensive. According to Ojibwe.net, the film had an Indigenous coordinator (Grace L. Dilon) and includes Indigenous language (the opening text is read Margaret Noodin, partially in Ojibwe), but there is no reason why this Indigenous story, written by three white men, couldn’t have been centered around Indigenous characters (One has to wonder why Greene isn’t at the center of this narrative?)
Criticisms aside, Antlers is an effective creature feature. The mostly practical creature design is appropriately epic in scope, especially when it is glimpsed in full in the film’s climax. There are also some icky body horror moments as Frank’s infection spreads and his unquenchable appetite for meat grows. Russell is, as always, a compassionate and empathetic lead and her interactions with both Thomas and Plemmons emotionally ground the film, even as the more realistic themes of abuse and trauma clash with the film’s increasingly supernatural angle.
Antlers is beautiful, evocative and features some memorable gore and creature FX. It’s hard not to lament what could have been between the shallow treatment of abuse and the poor Indigenous representation, but overall the film is still worth checking out. 3.5/5
Antlers is in theatres Oct 29, 2021