Antlers

Antlers is a micro-budget horror movie that aspires to be much more meaningful than it is.  In a perpetually rainy town in Oregon, a young boy named Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas) is trying to keep his family together while his meth-cooking father is in the throes of something that is turning him into an animal.  Lucas’s teacher Julia (Keri Russell) believes that Lucas’ disheveled state and withdrawn behavior are tell-tale signs child abuse, because she was abused as a child.  Her monosyllabic brother Paul (Jesse Plemons), the town sheriff, warns her not to intervene, but you know how this will turn out.  Graham Greene cameos as former Sheriff Warren who reveals that Lucas’s father was bitten by a Wendigo, a creature based in Native American legend.  From here on out, danger signs go unheeded, people get eaten and the movie’s big confrontation wraps up surprisingly quickly.

Russell and Plemons have been in much better movies than this, so their participation is curious.  Director Scott Cooper has made better films than this one, and hopefully this movie is just a bump in the road for him.  The movie’s reliance on the themes of child abuse and drug addition are just window dressing, a transparent way to garner sympathy for paper-thin characters.  Even more bothersome is how the movie uses a Native American legend as the basis for a cheap, CGI monster.  While the movie does establishes a depressing, gloomy atmosphere and generates a few modest scares, it ultimately is not worth the trouble.  Not Recommended.

Antlers is the story of Lucas Weaver, a young boy who lives in a Small Depressing Town (Cispus Falls, Oregon) with his father Frank and younger brother Aiden.  Frank is your average, run-of-the-mill greaseball Meth cook who uses an abandoned mine for his lab.  One afternoon, Frank and his sous-chef are attacked by an unseen creature.  After a long wait in his father’s truck, Aiden goes inside to look for his father.

We next see Lucas walking across fields by himself, picking up a dead animal along the way.  (Yes, life in Cispus Falls is that depressing.)  His home is dirty and cluttered, and the door for one room is bolted shut.  Behind the door is Frank and Aiden.  Somehow, Frank has managed to look even more gross than he was before.  Aiden looks OK, but something is clearly not right with their Dad, who now sounds like an animal.  The fact that Frank voraciously eats the road kill Lucas flings at him is definitely a clue that Frank is in the throws of something out of the ordinary. (It definitely isn’t bathing.)

At school, Lucas is withdrawn and draws dark, disturbing pictures.  When called upon by his teacher Julia (Keri Russell) to share in class, the story he tells references the same violent, evil presence as his drawings.  Julia believes that Lucas’ behavior shows telltale signs of child abuse.  Since she suffered child abuse herself, she believes that she understands exactly what is going on with Lucas and definitely can help him.  (All child abuse is the same, right?) She follows Lucas on his way home from school, but he quickly spots her.  Julia asks Lucas to have some ice cream with her, and she attempts to bond with him over their mutual affection for having dessert for every meal.  When Julia asks Lucas some personal questions, he shuts down and quickly leaves.  This scene is easily the best one in the movie, one with genuine emotions and feelings.  Unfortunately, the rest of the movie from this point on is completely forgettable.

Julia discusses her concerns about Lucas with her brother Paul (Jesse Plemons).  As the local sheriff, he knows first-hand the devastating toll that the closing of the mine and the arrival of Meth has had on the community.  The town has little-to-no money for public services, and that family living has taken a turn for the worst.  Unfortunately, a filthy house is just a fact of life in Meth Town (sorry, Cispus Falls), and not a clear-cut sign of abuse.  More importantly, Paul cannot enter the Weaver home and remove the child without a court order.  Since the town has no money for social workers, there is no one who will file an appeal to the court to have Lucas removed from Frank’s custody.  Classic Catch-22.

Paul also is dubious of Julia’s belief in her right to intervene.  She brings up how she was abused by their father, and how she was sorry for running from their home.  (The movie includes a few brief shots of the father acting strangely.)  Paul says that she doesn’t know what his experiences were, and leaves it at that.  (The movie never addresses the topic of the sibling’s child abuse ever again.)

Undeterred, Julia visits Lucas’ home.  When nobody answers the door, she lets herself in and immediately notices an overwhelming stench.  After finding every room in the house to be filthy, she’s convinced that Lucas has been abandoned by his father and is living by himself.  When Julia hears strange noises coming from the other side of the bolted door, she feels compelled to take action.

Back at school, Julia confides everything to school principal Ellen (Amy Madigan) who, while also shocked by what she hears, tells Julia not to return to the home.  Ellen reminds Julia that since she’s not a social worker or officer of the court, she has no business going to the home or inside it.  Ellen, however, doesn’t take her own advice and goes to the Weaver house herself.  Following in a long line of horror movie victims who enter dark, strange places by themselves, Ellen is quickly devoured by Frank.  When Ellen doesn’t show up at school the next day, she returns to the Weaver house and find’s Ellen’s car parked outside, covered by a tarp.  Inside, she finds Ellen’s body and a charred husk that could be Frank.  After Lucas is discharged from the hospital, Julia takes him home.

Paul and Julia pay a visit to Warren (Graham Greene), the former sheriff, to show him Lucas’ drawings.  Warren tells them that Lucas’ father has been bitten by a Wendigo.  According to legend, once he eats human flesh, he’ll turn into a Wendigo.  Becoming a Wendigo is probably a step up from being a Meth cooker, but what do I know?

From here on out, it’s only a question of who will approach the deadly beast by themselves in a darkened shack.  Sheriff Dan heads off to be killed first, soon to be followed by Sheriff Paul.  I hate to spoil things (well, not really), but Julia kills Frank the Wendigo with surprising ease.  (I have a feeling that the quick kill was necessitated by the production running out of funds.)  Paul survived his attack, and looks to be the next in line for Wendigo duty, in a sequel that I hope never gets made.

As you can probably tell from the above synopsis, I really didn’t like Antlers.  If I were completely honest, I’d say I hated the movie.  Hate is a strong word, though, and I’m hesitant to go that far for a movie with such a low budget and modest aspirations.  Doing so would come off as punching down in a way.  Looking at the film charitably, I can state that the movie does have a few redeeming qualities.  Keri Russell’s performance is decent, the setting of the movie is convincingly bleak, and any chance to see Jesse Plemons get gnarled by something is always welcome.  However, I really disliked how Antlers incorporates drug abuse, child abuse and Native American legends into a very pedestrian monster movie.  Basically, those three elements act as nothing more than window dressing, something I found to be both irresponsible and reprehensible.

The drug use theme in Antlers is extremely problematic.  I can’t recall another horror movie that incorporated methamphetamine usage and distribution into its plot, so Antlers earns some points for novelty.  The movie does superficially acknowledge the scourge the drug has been to poor communities at least.  Paul is partially correct when he rationalizes the horrible state of Lucas’ home on Frank’s meth use.  His justification for not getting involved so long as Lucas has food and shelter was queasy, but understandable.  The town doesn’t have the funds to shut down every meth lab, arrest the dealers or send every user to treatment.  However, the entire meth angle to the story is exposed as a sham when it’s revealed that Lucas isn’t being abused or neglected by his father at all.  Instead, Lucas is covering for him.  Frank may have been using and dealing meth, but according to this movie’s logic, he’s not a real monster to his family until after he’s been bitten.  The movie implies that Frank was passable as a father before then, which really says something.

Horror movies have often utilized child abuse as a plot device or subtext for their killer’s actions.  Psycho famously explained Norman Bates’ murderous tendencies as the result of his mother’s treatment.  Freddy Kruger’s actions were eventually revealed to be due to being abused by his father.  The Friday the Thirteenth series justified Jason Vorhees’ antipathy towards horny camp counselors as revenge for his drowning while under their supervision.  While I don’t have a problem with Antlers for incorporating child abuse as a plot device, I do have a problem with how it is utilized by the plot.

The child abuse Julia suffered becomes the motivation for every action she takes in the film.  In the backstory, Julia left home because she was abused by her mentally ill father.  She later returns home to live with her brother in an effort to confront and hopefully defeat the demons in her past.  Both actions make sense, and help us to sympathize with her character.  Julia never actually addresses her past in the story, though.  Instead, she’s convinced that her personal history makes her qualified to inject herself into Lucas’s life.  The movie never reveals exactly how Julia was abused, although the implication is that it was sexual in nature.  Regardless, since Julia has no knowledge of how Lucas is specifically being abused, she really has no business intruding in his life, no matter how altruistic her motivations may be.  Making matters worse is how Antlers treats those who do try to intervene on Lucas’s behalf.  Ellen and Sheriff Dan are both killed by the monster in mind-numbingly dumb horror movie fashion.  They both clearly would have been better off leaving well enough alone.

Lastly, the way Antlers utilized Native American folklore came off as being extremely regressive.  The movie purports to be about the legend of the Wendigo, but it doesn’t care about the legend at all.  Given that the movie only spends a few minutes explaining what a Wendigo is, there was no reason for the monster to be based on a Native American legend.  The cheap, unconvincing CGI monster could have been the result of a completely fabricated legend, and we would have gotten the exact same movie.  If this movie had been released maybe twenty years ago, I probably would have overlooked its complete lack of respect for Native American culture.  In the year 2021, a movie like Antlers comes off as naive and disrespectful.

Keri Russell has been a very good actress for a long time.  After six well-received seasons of The Americans and a showy supporting role in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, I’m surprised she accepted a role in this Grade-Z horror movie.  I remember feeling the same way while watching her in Dark Skies (2013).  Maybe she owed someone a favor.  She deserves much better roles than this one.  Aside from the aforementioned ice cream scene, she really doesn’t do much beyond typical horror movie heroine stuff.  I really hope her next project is better than this one.

People who read my reviews probably believe I have it in for Jesse Plemons.  I don’t have anything against him personally, I’m just tired of seeing him give the same performance over and over again.  In every performance of his I’ve seen in TV shows (Breaking Bad, Fargo, Black Mirror) and feature films (Game Night, The Power of the Dog) he plays the same dull, oblivious, pasty, overweight white guy.  Cribbing from one of John Oliver’s bits, I’d say that Plemons is the answer to the question: what would a loaf of Wonder Bread be like as a human being?  His turn as Paul is just as uninteresting as he’s done before.  Maybe I’m misreading his acting and he’s a master at minimalism.  Whatever he’s been doing, I’ve seen enough to last me a while.

Graham Greene delivers a sad cameo as former sheriff Warren.  He’s been a fine actor for decades, but when the time came in the movie for him to explain the Native American legend of the Wendigo to Julia and Paul, I had to wonder if the weariness expressed by his character was just acting, or Greene’s own sense of resignation at having to do such a stereotypical scene.  I suspect it was partly both.  From a character perspective, I had a feeling that Warren really didn’t want to be bothered explaining what a Wendigo is to a couple of oblivious white people who he knows either won’t believe him or heed his warnings, and ultimately will end up getting killed by the ancient evil in the end.

I can’t explain how I haven’t seen any of Scott Cooper’s previous directorial efforts before this one.  I remember that Crazy Heart, Black Mass and Hostels all had positive reviews.  I can’t escape the feeling that Antlers should have been a much better movie than it is.  It’s decently decently acted and the DP work is very good as well.  The movie comes off as incomplete or rushed, though.  There are much better horror movies out there to spend your time on than this one.

One last thing: the relationship between Lucas and his transformed father reminded me of Eighties shlocker X-tro (1982).  I’m not recommending you watch X-tro, but if you’ve already watched Antlers, why not?

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