One thing you can certainly say about “Antlers”: It has atmosphere. So much it practically chokes on it.
Overhead: perpetually gray skies leaking doleful rain. Underfoot: sodden leaves everywhere, signifying endless autumn. In town: rust, dreariness. Out in the misty woods: unsettling sounds; snarls, growls, roars.
And the outskirts of town: a decaying house with inky corridors and creaking doors. Upstairs: howls, thumps, something raving.
Director Scott Cooper really lays it on thick. He brings no modulation to the horror elements in his frightfest. Everything is gloom, gloom, gloom. And doom.
Rather a lot of doom. People ripped to shreds. Gnawed on. Punctured by antlers. Ah. The reason for the title.
A monster from Native American mythology, a creature called a Wendigo, is marauding through the Oregon woodlands where “Antlers” is set. (Guillermo del Toro brought his distinctive visual sensibility to the design of the beast.) It’s menacing the townsfolk, non-Natives all, who have intruded on its territory. It’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature because she’ll unleash hell in the form of a creature whose appetite is “never sated,” according to the one Native American character in the picture played by Graham Greene.
The more it eats, he informs, the hungrier it gets.
However, that angle is a subplot to the core of the story, which has to do with a lonely, spooky-looking boy played with a perpetual aura of hauntedness by Jeremy T. Thomas.
Disturbing, hyperviolent drawings featuring an antlered demon he sketches in class catch the eye of his middle-school teacher, played by Keri Russell with unwavering grimness. She recognizes they’re the sign of a troubled kid.
She intuits they’re indicators that he’s suffered from abuse, probably at home. She intuits this because she herself is a survivor of abuse. She, in fact, has fled from her home in California to this small town in Oregon where her brother (Jesse Plemons) is the sheriff. There she hopes to heal her wounded psyche. Encountering the boy reopens those still raw wounds.
Working from a screenplay he co-wrote with C. Henry Chaisson and Nick Antosca, Cooper clearly intended “Antlers” to be an examination of the issue of child abuse. But he paints with such a broad brush and makes his points so obviously that the picture barely rises above the level of sending the message: child abuse bad.
Mixed in also are allusions to such social pathologies as drug crime (the boy’s dad operates a meth lab) and white supremacy (via a news broadcast briefly heard off-screen). You get a sense of boxes being checked as those pathologies are rolled out. There are no nuances here.
And everything is overwhelmed by Cooper’s ham-handed handling of the horror elements. In a key scene, someone goes into that decayed house outside of town. The character knocks. No one answers. The character enters and perceives the all-pervasive gloom. The character hears snarls and crashes coming from upstairs.
In such a situation, taking all this in, a sane character would run, flee, skedaddle, vamoose, make tracks and call in the cops, or maybe an airstrike. But nooo! In typical horror-movie fashion, the character … Goes. Up. Stairs.
Of course she does. It’s what characters do in movies such as this. While in the audience’s mind up pops the word: Stupid!
It’s not the only such incident where the word applies. And so “Antlers” dulls its edge and blunts its point with its clichéd scares.