Scott Cooper, the actor-turned-filmmaker (Crazy Heart) from Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, isn’t known for horror movies — at least not the conventional kind — but for having an eye and an ear for an America that’s often forgotten by those in its bigger cities. In such films as Out of the Furnace, he displayed an affinity for small, crumbling, postindustrial communities and their citizens. So, the director would not necessarily seem a natural partner for Guillermo del Toro, who has produced Cooper’s latest film, Antlers, based on Nick Antosca’s short story about the Wendigo, an antlered, supernatural entity inspired by Native American folklore.
In some ways, however, it is a match made in horror-movie heaven.
Antlers is set in a bleak corner of Oregon, in a town where the abandoned coal mine has been repurposed as a makeshift meth lab by Frank Weaver (Scott Haze), a local addict and single dad to two vulnerable and frightened young boys, Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas) and Aiden (Sawyer Jones).
Taking place against a backdrop of the opioid epidemic, unemployment, and desperation, the story (smartly adapted by Cooper, Antosca, and Henry Chaisson) centers on the relationship between Lucas — a sweet, hollow-eyed kid, heartbreakingly rendered by Thomas, who has begun to exhibit signs of emotional trauma — and his teacher Julia (Keri Russell).
Having recently returned to her hometown from California, which she fled many years ago to escape her own sexually predatory father, Julia (or Jules as she’s known) is quick to identify the red flags Lucas is throwing out.
Not so quick is her little brother Paul (Jesse Plemons), the town’s sheriff, who thinks the boy is none of his sister’s business.
Although his ears do perk up when the body of a local man is found. It’s severed messily in two, as if by a wild animal, and one half is in the mine.
That’s the setup for the traditional horror side of this story, whose grisly, supernatural style bears del Toro’s hallmarks. In that sense, Antlers is a very recognizable thing, with the occasional, judiciously placed jump scare, gore, and monster special effects. But Cooper’s input is evident, too, in a restraint that imbues the film’s more lurid genre gimmicks with the strength of an allegory. In other words, his influence elevates Antlers to a story that isn’t just about a boogeyman, but about addiction, codependence, and the intergenerational legacy of abuse. The film opens with Jules teaching her students about the power of storytelling — of which the film is a textbook example.
There are some great, poignant lines here: “I just have to feed him, and he’ll love me,” says Lucas to Jules, about his deeply troubled father.
Another line is almost a throwaway. When Paul confronts Jules — whose attentiveness to Lucas seems a form of penance — about how she abandoned him for California, leaving Paul in the care of a monster much more prosaic than the Wendigo, she justifies her exit by citing what her father did to her. “You have no idea what he did to me,” Paul replies, with a haunted look in his eyes. The way he can barely keep his coffee cup from shaking says more than his words ever can.
Antlers obeys the rules of horror — many of which are familiar, at times even cliche — while also bending them. It’s a creature feature at heart, yes, but its footing is grounded in the tragedies we hear about in the news every day.
Now I ask you, as many viewers of this film may no doubt do as they watch it: Which of the two is the greatest — and most immediate — terror?